by Omar Ali
A few days ago, Graeme Wood wrote a piece in the Atlantic that has generated a lot of buzz (and controversy). In this article he noted that:
“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”
The article is well worth reading and it certainly does not label all Muslims as closet (or open) ISIS supporters, but it does emphasize that many of the actions of ISIS have support in classical Islamic texts (and not just in fringe Kharijite opinion). This has led to accusations of Islamophobia and critics have been quick to respond. A widely cited response in “Think Progress” quotes Graeme Wood's own primary source (Princeton scholar Bernard Hakykel) as saying:
“I think that ISIS is a product of very contingent, contextual, historical factors. There is nothing predetermined in Islam that would lead to ISIS.”
Indeed. Who could possibly disagree with that? I dont think Graeme Wood disagrees. In fact, he explicitly says he does not. But that statement is a beginning, not a conclusion. What contingent factors and what historical events are important and which ones are a complete distraction from the issue at hand?
Every commentator has his or her (implicit, occasionally explicit) “priors” that determine what gets attention and from what angle; and a lot of confusion clearly comes from a failure to explain (or to grasp) the background assumptions of each analyst. I thought I would put together a post that outlines some of my own background assumptions and arguments in as simple a form as possible and see where it leads. So here, in no particular order, are some random comments about Islam, terrorism and ISIS that I hope will, at a minimum, help me put my own thoughts in order. Without further ado:
1. The early history of Islam is, among other things, the history of a remarkably successful imperium. Like any empire, it was created by conquest. The immediate successors of the prophet launched a war of conquest whose extent and rapidity matched that of the Mongols and the Alexandrian Greeks, and whose successful consolidation, long historical life, and development of an Arabized culture, far outshone the achievements of the Mongols or the Manchus (both of whom adopted the existing deeper rooted religions and cultures of their conquered people rather than impose or develop their own).
2. Islam, the religion we know today (the classical Islam of the four Sunni schools, as well as the various Shia sects) developed in the womb of the Arab empire. It provided a unifying ideology and a theological justification for that empire (and in the case of various Shia sects, varying degrees of resistance or revolt against that empire) but, at the very least, Islam and the nascent Arab empire grew and developed together; one was not the later product of the fully formed other. Being, in it's classical form, the religion of a (very successful and impressive) imperialist project, it is not surprising that its”official” Sunni version has a military and supremacist feel to it. Classical Islam is not intolerant of all other religions (though it is in principle almost completely intolerant of pagans) but the rules and regulations of the four classical schools all agree on the superior status of Muslims and impose certain restrictions, disabilities and taxes on the followers of the “religions of the book” that they do tolerate. By the standards of contemporary European “Christendom”, many of these rules appear tolerant and broad-minded; and since Western intellectuals (leftists as much, or even more than rightists) are completely focused on European history and culture (and therefore,on the achievements and deficiencies of that culture), this relative tolerance is frequently remarked upon as a stellar feature of Islamicate civilization. But it should be noted that this degree of tolerance is quite intolerant compared to contemporary Chinese or Indian norms and is horrendously intolerant compared to post-enlightenment ideals and fashions. The imposition of Ottoman rules today would be most unwelcome even to post-Marxist intellectuals if they had to live under those rules. Of course, this does not mean they cannot speak highly of these norms as long as they themselves are a safe distance away from them, but such long-distance approval is of academic interest (literally, academic) and not our concern for the purposes of this post.
3. Modern states and modern politics (not just all the complex debates about how power should be exercised, who exercises it, who decides who exercises it etc., but also the institutions and mechanisms that evolved to manage modern states and modern politics) mostly reached their current form in Europe. They did not arise from nothing. Many ancient strands grew and intersected to create these states and their political institutions. And there are surely things about this evolution that are contingent and would have been different if they had happened elsewhere. But there are also many features of modern life that are based on new and universally applicable discoveries about human psychology, human biology and human sociology. They have made possible new levels of organization and productivity and in a globalized world (and the Eurasian landmass has had some sort of exchange of ideas for millennia, but this process has accelerated now by orders of magnitude) it is impossible for any large population to ignore these advances and suvive unmolested by those willing to take advantage of these advances.
The modern world that has been created is not just one random “civilization” among many. It is the cutting edge of human knowledge and the human ability to apply that knowledge to good and evil ends. Whatever else it may be (and there is no shortage of people who feel it is too oppressive, too unfair, too fast, too anxiety-provoking, too inhuman, etc etc.) it is an extremely powerful and progressive culture. You can reject it, and countless people (including, it seems, many of the most privileged intellectuals of this very civilization) do reject many aspects of it. But it should also be noted that there are degrees of rejection. Most of the critics (but not all of them) are either critics-from-within, who only reject certain aspects of it, or non-serious critics whose wholesale contempt for the project is not matched by any equivalent personal commitment or serious consideration of alternatives. Most of them also seem unable to do without critical aspects of modernity. Aspects you cannot have without having far more of the rest than they seem to care for. To give two random examples, I have never met a multiculturalist liberal or leftist in the West (including those of Desi origin) who is willing to himself or herself live under the restrictive sexual morality and the community-centric balance of community vs individual rights characteristic of “traditional cultures'. And I have NEVER met an Islamist who did not want an air-force (you can work out for yourself all the other innovations and institutional mechanisms that would be needed in order to have a competitive indigenous air-force).
In fact, forget traditional cultures, just look at Maoist China and the Khmer Rouge, both of whom explicitly rejected modern individualism and mere meritocracy and insisted they wanted to be “Red rather than Expert“. One ended up honoring the legacy of Liu Bocheng and Deng Xiaoping over Mao, the other ended up on the proverbial “dust heap of history”. There is a lesson (or several lessons) in those choices and their spectacular failure.
In short, the only people who can realistically stay outside of “our universal civilization” are either museum communities permitted to survive as quaint exemplars of bygone days (like the Amish) or VERY tiny communities that are so isolated and remote that they have escaped the maw of the Eurasian beast until now. Our universal civilization does not have to be seen as positively as Naipaul famously saw it, but it still has to be seen for what it is, a gigantic human achievement and a work in progress; all criticism and resistance being included within it (dialectics anyone?)
And it is important to note that this universal civilization is no longer exclusively European (and never was exclusively European for that matter). Soon, this universal civilization may be dominated by non-European people, a fact that Eurocentric PostMarxist intellectuals seem to have very great difficulty assimilating into their worldview. The institutions and ideas that developed in Europe (from earlier sources that came from all over Eurasia) in the last 400 years have been adopted and adapted already by several Asian nations (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan), with China not far behind and India set to follow. Muslims are not special enough to escape that fate. The only thing truly remarkable about the Muslim core region is the widespread desire to integrate huge elements of modern civilization while remaining medieval in terms of theology, law and politics. Of course we are not unique in this desire; there are Indians and Chinese and Japanese who “reject modernity” as being too European, and who insist they have an alternative path. Whether they do or do not is to some extent a matter of semantics, but Muslims are not unique in claiming that “we are a fundamentally different civilization”. Where we are unique (for now) is only in our inability to generate a genuinely open debate on this topic; the tendency in the Islamicate core is for almost everyone in the public sphere to pay lip-service to delusional or formulaic and practically meaningless Islamist ideals and to avoid direct criticism of medieval laws and theology. This is unlike how it is routine for Indians to criticize Indian “fundamentalists” or Christians to criticize Christian ones. And for that we have to thank the blasphemy and apostasy memes more than any intrinsic unchangeability of Islamicate laws and theology.
4. But while Islamicate empires (the dominant form of political organization in the middle east and South Asia from the advent of Islam to the colonial era) insisted they were “Islamic” and used Islam (especially in the first 500 years) as the central justification for their expansionist ambitions, there was another sense in which these same empires had a near-total separation of mosque and state. All these empires operated as typical Eurasian empires and they were, in most administrative details, a straightforward evolution of previous imperial patterns in that region. Religion was part and parcel of the empires, but religious doctrine provided practically no guidance to the political process. The rulers used religion to justify their rule, but the battle-axe determined who got to rule and how. Some rulers attempted to conduct an inquisition and impose their favorite theology on their subjects, but most were content to get post-facto approval for their rule from the ulama (and the ulama were happy to oblige). Islamic theologians accepted practically ANY ruler as long the ruler said he was Muslim and continued to work for the expansion of the Islamic empire. ALL four schools of classical Sunni Islam insisted that the ruler should be obeyed and rebellion was unislamic. This did not stop people from rebelling, but once a rebellion succeeded, the ulama advised submission to whatever ambitious and capable prince had managed to kill his way to the top. An imaginary idealized Islamic state was discussed at times but had little to no connection with actual power politics.
5. It must also be kept in mind that Empires governed loosely and interfered little with the everyday religious rituals of the ruled, especially outside the urban core. The rulers were interested in collecting taxes and continuing to rule. Most of the ruled gave as little as possible in taxes and had as little as possible to do with their rulers. This is not a specifically Islamic pattern, but it was practically a universal feature of Islamicate empires. Muslim religious literature developed no serious political thought. Power politics was guided more by “Mirrors of princes” type literature and pre-Muslim (or not-specifically Muslim) traditions and not some detailed notion of “Islamic state”. There is really NO detailed “Islamic” blueprint for running a state. The so-called Islamic system of government is a modern myth. Every Islamicate empire down to the late Ottomans ruled in the name of Islam, but they did so using institutions and methods that were typically West-Asian/Central-Asian in origin, or were invented to solve a particular Islamicate problem, but had no direct or necessary connection with fundamental Islamic texts and traditions.
6. After defeat at the hands of more capable imperialists and during the (relatively brief) colonial interlude, some people dug up the old stories of the rightly guided caliphs; It seems to me that early Islamicate fantasists (like Allama Iqbal in India) took it for granted that the everyday institutional reality of any “Islamic” state would, for the foreseeable future, be much closer to England than it was to Medina (witness for example his approval of the Grand Turkish assembly). Most Muslim leaders, like their Chinese or Japanese counterparts, were first and foremost interested in getting out from under the imperialist thumb. If they gave some thought to the form their states would take, their imagination ranged from Marxist Russian models to very poorly imagined Islamist utopias. But over time, stories frequently repeated can take on a life of their own. Islamist parties want to create powerful, modern Islamic states. But the stories they were using were more Islamic than modern. The result is that every Islamist party is forever in danger of being hijacked by those espousing simple-minded and unrealistic notions of Shariah law. It turns out that pretending to have “our own unique genius” is much easier than actually having any genius that can get the job done. Modern ideas (fascism, the grand theatre of modern media manipulation, modern methods of guerilla war) are used to promote legal codes and theology whose relationship with these new institutions has not been worked out yet (and I see no problem with sticking my neck out and saying “will NOT be worked out satisfactorily by ANY contemporary Islamist movement).
7. The MODE of failure may vary, but the failure of the Islamist political project in the next 20 years is inevitable. This is not because there can be no such project in principle, but because the project as it has actually developed in the 20th century is based on the twin illusions of an “ideal Islamic state” and an existing alternative “Islamic political science”…neither of which actually existed in history. AFTER this failure, there can certainly be new ways of creating modern, workable institutions that have enough of an Islamic coloring to deserve the label “Islamist” while incorporating all (or most) of the new discoveries in the hard sciences as well as in economics, human psychology, politics, social organization, administrative institutions, mass communication and so on.
8. I do want to emphasize that I do not believe Islamic theology per se is some sort of insoluble problem. It may be a difficult problem, but both liberals who are trying to discover modern fashions in that theology and “Islamophobes” who insist that the theology is a permanently illiberal fascist program are wrong in their emphasis on the centrality of this theology. As Razib put it in an interesting post on this topic on his blog, “Islam is not a religion of the book”. NO religion is a religion of the book. People make religions and people remake them as the times demands. Messily and unpredictably in many cases, but still, there is movement. And in this sense, Islam is no more fixed in stone by what is written or not written in its text (or texts) than any other religion.
Someone commented on Razib's blog (and I urge you to read the post and the comments, and the hyperlinks, they are all relevant and make this post clearer) as follows:
“Well, if you take the Old Testament and Koran at face value, the OT is more violent. The interesting question is then why Islam ends up being more violent than Judaism or Christianity, and for that I agree you have to thank subsequent tradition and reinterpretation of the violence in the text. It appears that for whatever reason Islam has carried out less of this kind of reinterpretation, so what was originally a less violent founding text ends up causing more violence because it is being interpreted much more literally.”
I replied that there is an easier explanation: Whether the text canonized as “foundational document” does, or does not, explain the imperialism and supremacism of the various Islamicate empires is a red herring. The Quran is a fairly long book, but to an outsider it should be immediately obvious that you can create many different Islams around that book and if you did it all over again, NONE of them have to look like classical Sunni Islam. The details of Sunni Islam (who gets to rule, what daily life is supposed to look like, how non-Muslims should be treated, etc) are not some sort of direct and unambiguous reading of the Quran. While the schools of classical Sunni Islam claim to be based on the Quran and hadith, the Quran and the hadiths are clearly cherry picked and manipulated (and in the case of the hadiths, frequently just invented) based on the perceived needs of the empire, the ulama, the individual commentators, human nature, economics, whatever (insert your favorite element here).
So in principle, we should be able to make new Islams as needed (and some of us have indeed done so over the centuries, the Ismailis being one extreme example; some Sufis being another) and I am sure others will do just that in the days to come. The Reza Aslan types are right about this much (though i seriously doubt that he can invent anything new or lasting; that does not even seem to be his primary aim). In fact, in terms of practice, millions of Muslims have already “invented new Islams”. Just as a random example, most contemporary Muslims do not have sex with multiple concubines that they captured in the most recent Jihad expedition to the Balkans (or bought from African slave-traders for that matter). Not only do they not buy and sell slaves, they find the thought of doing so somewhat shocking. Also see how countless Muslims lived very obediently under British laws in the British empire and in fact provided a good part of the armies of that empire. Or see the countless Muslims who take oaths of loyalty to all sorts of “un-Islamic” states and, for the most part, turn out to be as loyal and law-abiding as any of their Hindu or Sikh or Christian fellow citizens in the various hedonistic modern states. Their “Islam” has already adapted itself to new realities.
What sets Muslms apart is really their inability (until now) to publicly and comfortably articulate a philosophical rejection of medieval (aka no longer fashionable) elements of classical Sunni Islam. And for all practical purposes, this is a serious problem only in Muslim majority countries. In other countries that have a strong sense of their own identity and of the necessity of their own laws, Muslims mostly get on with life while following those laws. In the Muslim majority countires, it is the apostasy and blasphemy laws (and the broader memes that uphold those laws) that play a central role in preventing public rejection of unfashionable or unworkable aspects of classical Islam. A King Hussein or a Benazir Bhutto or even a Rouhani may have private thoughts rejecting X or Y inconvenient parts of medieval Islamicate laws and theology, but to speak up would be to invite accusations of blasphemy and apostasy. So they fudge, they hem and haw, and they do one thing while paying lip service to another. Unfortunately, this means the upholders of classical Islam have the edge in debates in the public sphere. And ISIS and the Wahabis are not far enough from mainstream classical Sunni Islam for us to think they are just some demonic eruption from outer space; for example, classical Islamic theology recommends cutting the hands of thieves, stoning adulterers, going on jihad (not just some inner jihad of the Karen Armstrong type, but the real deal), capturing slaves, buying and selling concubines, killing apostates and so on; ISIS of course goes much further in their willingness to kill other Muslims, to rebel against existing rulers and to bypass common humanity and commonly cited restrictions and regulations about prisoners, hostages, punishments and so on, but when they say classical Islam permits the first set of things noted above, they are not lying, the apologists are lying.
By the way, while this inability to frontally confront aspects of classical Islam that are out of sync with the current age is a serious problem in Muslim communities, it is not insoluble. The internet has made it very hard to keep inconvenient thoughts out of view. So even in Muslim majority countries, there will be much churning and eventually, much change. It's just that some countries will emerge out of it better than others.
ISIS itself will not get anywhere. Of course, in principle, an evolved ISIS living on in the core Sunni region is possible. But we make predictions based on whatever models we have in our head. Like most predictions in social science and history, these will not be mathematical and precise and our confidence in them (or our ability to convince others, even when others accept most of our premises) will not be akin to the predictions of mathematics or physics. But for whatever it's worth, I don't think ISIS will settle into some semi-comfortable equilibrium (irrespective of whether more capable powers like Israel or Turkey or even the CIA are supporting them or not). They will only destroy and create chaos. And eventually they will be destroyed. It is possible that in the process parts of Syria, Iraq and North Africa could become like Somalia; too messy, too violent and too poor to be worth the effort of pacification, even by intact nearby states. But even if a Somalia-like situation continues for years, it will not go on forever. The real estate involved is too valuable, the communities involved were too integrated in the modern world, to be left alone. Eventually someone will bring order to to those parts. Though it is likely that this “someone” will be local and will use more force and cruder methods than liberal modern intellectuals are comfortable with. The first stage of pacification is more likely to be handled by local agents of distant imperialists, not directly by the imperialists themselves. That is just the way it is likely to work best.
Of course, success and failure are always relative to something. If the zeitgeist (whatever that means) is no longer in favor of something then a “successful” policy would be one that achieves a soft landing. Since the zeitgeist is (almost by definition) unknowable in full in real time, even the soft landing is not going to land where the first planners of soft landing imagined it as being headed. Being able to land softly, wherever that may be is the best outcome we can hope for in many cases. With that cheery note, here are some other useful links (many extracted from an extremely learned discussion on smallwarsjournal) that shed light on some aspects of the above, raise opposing ideas, or help to understand where I am coming from.
Our religion problem by Babar Sattar in DAWN Pakistan.
Reforming the blasphemy laws, in many ways, an enlightened “Islam-based” initiative.
Razib Khan on “The Islamic State is right about some things”.
From Zenpundit Charles Cameron on Misquoting Mohammed
“Brown is a Muslim, a professor at Georgetown, and author of Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World. His book Misquoting Muhammad — not his choice of title, btw — lays open the varieties of interpretive possibility in dealing with the Qur’an and ahadith with comprehensive scholarship and clarity. In light of the upsurge in interest in Islamic and Islamist religious teachings occasioned by Graeme Wood‘s recentAtlantic article, I asked Prof. Brown’s permission to reproduce here the section of his book dealing with abrogation and the rules of war.
Here then, with his permission, is an extract from Misquoting Muhammad. I hope it will prove of use both here and to others beyond the circle of Zenpundit readers. Spread the word!”
From a conservative Western perspective: The fantasy of an Islamic reformation.
“Q 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion . . .” (lā ikrāha fī l-dīni) has become the locus classicus for discussions of religious tolerance in Islam. Surprisingly enough, according to the “circumstances of revelation” (asbāb al-nuzūl) literature (see occasions of revelation), it was revealed in connection with the expulsion of the Jewish tribe of Banū l-Nadīr from Medina in 4⁄625 In the earliest works of exegesis (see exegesis of the Quran: classical and medieval), the verse is understood as an injunction (amr) to refrain from the forcible imposition of Islam, though there is no unanimity of opinion regarding the precise group of infidels to which the injunction had initially applied. Commentators who maintain that the verse was originally meant as applicable to all people consider it as abrogated (mansūkh) by q 9:5, q 9:29, or q 9:73 (see abrogation). Viewing it in this way is necessary in order to avoid the glaring contradiction between the idea of tolerance and the policies of early Islam which did not allow the existence of polytheism — or any other religion — in a major part of the Arabian peninsula. Those who think that the verse was intended, from the very beginning, only for the People of the Book, need not consider it as abrogated: though Islam did not allow the existence of any religion other than Islam in most of the peninsula, the purpose of the jihād (q.v.)against the People of the Book, according to q 9:29, is their submission and humiliation rather than their forcible conversion to Islam.[…]“
“Both verses that are said to have abrogated Quran 2:256 speak about jihad. It can be inferred from this that the commentators who consider Quran 2:256 as abrogated perceive jihad as contradicting the idea of religious freedom. While it is true that religious differences are mentioned in both Quran 9:29 and 9:73 as the reason because of which the Muslims were commanded to wage war, none of them envisages the forcible conversion of the vanquished enemy. Quran 9:29 defines the purpose of the war as the imposition of the jizya on the People of the Book and their humiliation, while Quran 9:73 speaks only about the punishment awaiting the infidels and the hypocrites in the hereafter, and leaves the earthly purpose of the war undefined. Jihad and religious freedom are not mutually exclusive by necessity; religious freedom could be granted to the non-Muslims after their defeat, and commentators who maintain that Quran 2:256 was not abrogated freely avail themselves of this exegetical possibility with regard to theJews, the Christians and the Zoroastrians. However, the commentators who belong to the other exegetical trend do not find it advisable to think along these lines, and find it necessary to insist on the abrogation of Quran 2:256 in order to resolve the seeming contradiction between this verse and the numerous verses enjoining jihad. p. 102-3t al-_arab). Despite the apparent meaning of q 2:256, Islamic law allowed coercion of certain groups into Islam. Numerous traditionists and jurisprudents ( fuqahā_) allow coercing female polytheists and Zoroastrians (see magians) who fall into captivity to become Muslims — otherwise sexual relations with them would not be permissible (cf. q 2:221; see sex and sexuality; marriage and divorce). Similarly, forcible conversion of non-Muslim children was also allowed by numerous jurists in certain circumstances, especially if the children were taken captive (see captives) or found without their parents or if one of their parents embraced Islam. It was also the common practice to insist on the conversion of the Manichaeans, who were never awarded the status of ahl al-dhimma. Another group against whom religious coercion may be practiced are apostates from Islam (see apostasy). As a rule, classical Muslim law demands that apostatesbe asked to repent and be put to death if they refuse.”
The pact of Umar
“In the name of Allah, the merciful Benefactor! This is the assurance granted to the inhabitants of Aelia by the servant of God, 'Umar, the commander of the Believers. He grants them safety for their persons, their goods, churches, crosses – be they in good or bad condition – and their worship in general. Their churches shall neither be turned over to dwellings nor pulled down; they and their dependents shall not be put to any prejudice and thus shall it fare with their crosses and goods. No constraint shall be imposed upon them in matters of religion and no one among them shall be harmed. No Jew shall be authorised to live in Aelia with them. The inhabitants of Aelia must pay the gizya in the same way as the inhabitants of other towns. It is for them to expel from their cities Roums (Byzantians) and outlaws. Those of the latter who leave shall be granted safe conduct… Those who would stay shall be authorised to, on condition that they pay the same gizya as the inhabitants of Aelia. Those of the inhabitants of Aelia who wish to leave with the Roums, to carry away their goods, abandon their churches and Crosses, shall likewise have their own safe conduct, for themselves and for their Crosses. Rural dwellers (ahl 'I-ard) who were already in the town before the murder of such a one, may stay and pay the gizya by the same title as the people of Aelia, or if they prefer they may leave with the Roums or return to their families. Nothing shall be exacted of them.
Witnesses: Khaledb.A1-Walid, 'Amrb.A1-Alp, 'Abdar-Rahmanb. 'Awf Muawiya b. Abi Sufyan, who wrote these words, here, In the year 15 (33).
Winston King states in the Encyclopaedia of Religion, 2nd Ed., Vol. 11
“Many practical and conceptual difficulties arise when one attempts to apply such a dichotomous pattern [ sacred / profane ] across the board to all cultures. In primitive societies, for instance, what the West calls religious is such an integral part of the total ongoing way of life that it is never experienced or thought of as something separable or narrowly distinguishable from the rest of the pattern. Or if the dichotomy is applied to that multifaceted entity called Hinduism, it seems that almost everything can be and is given a religious significance by some sect. Indeed, in a real sense everything that is is divine; existence per se appears to be sacred. It is only that the ultimately real manifests itself in a multitude of ways—in the set-apart and the ordinary, in god and so-called devil, in saint and sinner. The real is apprehended at many levels in accordance with the individual’s capacity.” p.7692,
Paul Radin, Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin in connexion with early societies”Where there is little trace of a centralized authority, there we encounter no true priests, and religious phenomena remain essentially unanalysed and unorganized. Magic and simple coercive rites rule supreme”.p.21
Carl Schmitt in Political Theology,
“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts‟ (p. 36)
or again in The Concept of the Political that
“The juridic [sic] formulas of the omnipotence of the state are, in fact, only superficial secularisations of theological formulas of the omnipotence of God‟ (p. 42).