Muslim Separatists and The Idea of an “Islamic” State by amina wadud


amina 2014 - croppedThe other day, someone on twitter said she would not allow ISIS (known as the Islamic State of the Levant) use the name of “her” religion.  In fact, scholars in Egypt had proposed that they be called “the Separatist movement” and take the word “Islam” out of it. This question raised here is: what exactly is “Islamic” about what they are doing and how they are doing it?

I have contended for at least 2 decades that people use the word “Islam” anyway they want to make any point they want.  More importantly, whoever has the power to assert their definition of the word “Islam” controls how it is used. I say the past 2 decades because I used to think I could somehow determine “pure” “Islam”—as opposed to cultural reflections, human imperfections, and intellectual genuflections.  I came instead to see that everyone has a definition of Islam and whose definitions held sway was less a matter of epistemology and more a matter of power.

So, I followed one of my intellectual mentors and agreed that for any discourse about Islam, a definition had to be established, agreed upon, and then consistently maintained. He suggested that a simple criteria referent be applied based on Islam’s two primary sacred sources: the text of the Qur’an and the normative practices of the Prophet Muhammad, called sunnah.  He juxtaposed these to “little traditions” in the multiple ways Muslims experience or live out their understandings of these two.

Part of the methodology of Islamic feminism and reformed Islamic thought has been to demonstrate a direct link to the two primary sources but with a different paradigm about key principles espoused there in- like justice, human dignity, and compassion.  From that point forward, I tend to provide my definition of Islam, give evidence to support that definition from the primary sources and then elaborate how it would work in application to whatever issue is at hand. 

It does not mean that I do not come up against other understandings of how these same principles would be applied or variant interpretations and implementations of the sacred sources.  Once I and those with whom I disagree locate our mutual arguments, then others have to apply their own rational thought to determine the merit of our methodologies and conclusions. By far, the greatest significance of this is to displace the functional tendency to grant authority and legitimacy only to conservative patriarchal thinkers.  They then would have the responsibility of developing a convincing argument, giving their evidence—as do I or any reformist thinkers or activists. This empowers divergent voices and neutralizes singular seats of authority and legitimacy- sort of the democratization of Islamic authority.

Since the horrible events in the US on September 11th 2001 I have experienced an overwhelming tendency of Muslim apologia.  Any time anyone who identifies as Muslim commits horrific acts, Muslim civil organizations and community leaders have been quick to not to condone these acts.  Sometimes they use the language “this is not Islam”. This is a slippery slope and I still measure the extent to which they define their terms and what control or power they have over the discourse.  I also do not ever feel like I am personally responsible for every act performed by every Muslim, good or bad.  So I don’t apologize.  I do however continue to live what I believe (that is justice, honor, truth and dignity) and to assert its possibility where ever I can. That did not change for me at September 11th.  However, the ability to argue for it was affected.

To engage in those arguments, I have become even more committed to the idea that Islam is NOT what every Muslim does and yet Islam is nothing if not lived by Muslims.  I do not then have to distance myself from every spurious action as a way to prove I am the true and good Muslim and they are the bad Muslim (hence the title of my previous blog).

When I encounter difference of opinions over what is a priority in Islam and Islamic thought and practice, I stick to this assertion.  I demand evidence in support of those arguments I disagree with and provide the same to validate my argument.  So while I disagree with some Muslims on a number of assertions, I do not deny them the right to make their assertions.

This has been put to the test by the organization known as ISIS.  First of all, they claim legitimacy to be the ruling body, or caliphate for all Muslims.  I can find no logic for this from within a vast and diverse Muslim history. We moved beyond the notion of empire about a hundred years ago and it was in disintegration for some time before that.  Now the Nation-State is the global model, and—for good or for ill—even Muslims make their peace with it. Actually, Muslims seem bent on not allowing any one body or any one government to speak for us all on any matter.  So there is zero possibility that ISIS could fulfill its objective in becoming the global leadership of a billion and a half Muslims.

It could be funny. At least several jokes have been poked at that ridiculous claim- except they are the worst thing I have ever encountered in all the years of my life: Muslim and pre-Muslim.

This has presented quite a conundrum.  For even those with whom I might vehemently disagree, I could see the logic of their argument and I could argue against it.  Then, onto the global arena comes a violent organization of Muslims sweeping through Iraq and Syria, brutally killing everyone who does not fall before its claim to be the ruling body for the empire of all Muslims.

Still, I demand some criteria for their definitions, some references to the two main sources of Islamic thought and action.  Instead, what I see is a blatant disregard for those sources even to their most absurd interpretations.

This is not an apology for ISIS, because frankly they can just go to hell.  This is only to assert that the actions that they have been performing exceed even the recommendations about how to engage with an enemy in battle; where all the sources of Islam first demands that war itself has to be declared and respect for prisoners of war and non-combatants is paramount.  This sweep of ISIS across Iraq killing non-Muslims who never declared war, including journalists- to say nothing of killing other Muslims in mass genocide- cannot be connected to any evidentiary base within Islam.

This is not a case of some one’s disagreeable interpretation of Islam. This is clearly outside of Islam.  So for those who oppose Islam, please recognize you have support amongst Muslims for putting a stop to this group.  We would uphold even our divergent interpretations while having a consensus that this is one bully we cannot claim and wish to employ all methods to put an end to. Do not use this as an occasion to sling Islam-hating which would distract us from coming together to stop them and to put its leaders on trial for crimes against humanity.

 

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, General, In the News, Islam, Violence

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30 replies

  1. Well-said.

    Yesterday I a friend brought up recent news reports that “Muslim men” in England were sexually abusing young girls. (I have not read this report.) My friend who takes every chance she can get to put religions down, remarked that some discussants were saying that “this has nothing to do with Islam.” My friend said she thought it did have to do Islam. I replied that attitudes that women exist for men to take advantage of should be attributed to patriarchy, not to Islam, while at the same time some Islamic men may think that Islam tells them that they are superior to women. I am not sure she took in the distinction, but don’t worry, I will keep intervening when she makes blanket statements about Islam.

    By the way my friends are more likely to object that to call this group ISIS is to take the name of their Goddess in vain.

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    • Carol, I found that news report in the Guardian, in the U.K. I think it’s important to note that it was written by an Algerian Muslim woman, Iman Amrani, very sensitive and informative. The first line of her article says: “It’s tiring work being a Muslim in the UK today…” and she talks about the shame attributed to women who “bravely come forward” about their own experiences of abuse.

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    • Rest assured that in my household the term “Isis” is used with reference to the goddess, and we likewise take issue with its usage for a violent group.

      As for the intersectionality of oppressions, I am regularly focused, perhaps in just simple linguistics to the ways some folk remain blind to their pre-occupation about one aspect allowing them to perpetuate injustices in another aspect. In fact any language that “others” seems clear enough.

      Thus racism when advocating against sexism is unacceptable just as homophobia when talking about race or ableism when talking about class. I also point this out as often as I can. It is painfully obvious that if one group or person who identifies with or can be identified as one “group” commits an atrocity the point is not his or her group, but the atrocity.

      To condemn the atrocity does not require us to resort to wholesale discrimination and prejudice. In the end, a human being committing evil is still a human being. Otherwise, we permit ourselves to violate our own humanity in bringing such evil doers to justice. As I say, it’s a slippery slope.

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  2. As was the case with your prior post this is both thoughtful and thought provoking. What you say resonates in particular with two interrelated issues of medicine and law that are implicated by definitional methodology and which have roots in the Greek and Latin (Roman law) traditions in ways that would seem to be relevant to the Islamic tradition because of their direct or indirect thereon: (1) what is the definition of a disease? (eg, Galen’s language theory) and (2) what qualifies a person to have what they say or do legally recognized? (eg, Varro’s language theory).

    Rather than risk saying something wrong about which I know little I will analogize to a topic about which I do know something, the relevance of which to what you discuss I trust will be apparent: as a man I often feel the need not necessarily to defend but at least explain some things men say or do, whether or not I may have a connection to them or whether or not I agree with them. Sometimes this is done with good natured humor following a “You men” expression from one or more women. But only sometimes. I have increasingly become sensitized to the idea that misogyny is a mental illness and that though it is something that men are uniquely susceptible to should not itself be thought of as in any way defining masculinity. I also think that misogyny in its most virulent form can and should be treated as disqualifying a person from saying or doing anything in a legal capacity (a restraining order is a small step in that direction).

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    • Great analogy. Thanks.

      I’m also very much in favor of separating misogyny from masculinity. While I am just as likely to roll my eyes at you men, or to white people for racism, I, like you, try to do it in humor about an obstacle that is hard to over come in its pervasiveness, but not impossible if we become “self” aware and compassionate about the “self” of “others”, even those with whom we disagree.

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  3. Amina, Yes, ISIL/ISIS claiming to be Islamic (how Islam is “lived out” in the world) in any way confounds decent people everywhere. Is there perhaps a broader theme that we can address–“evil” in the world–that all faith traditions wrestle with? Rabbi Kushner, after wrestling with the pain of his son’s diagnosis (progeria) and ultimate death, concluded that God is not all-powerful–very powerful, yes, but not omnipotent. “Blind, amoral nature,” he says makes its way into the lives of human beings. How do we handle it all? (One might argue that ISIL/ISIS is made up of people capable of making moral choices and, therefore, not the same thing as earthquakes and disease.) Nonetheless, this thing we call “evil” (ways of being in the world that fly in the face of decency) makes its presence known with regularity in the world. We take offense when “evil” clothes itself with religious garb. Why is that more offensive than when other institutions (political, economic) do so?

    Amina–you’ve written a great piece. My idealism tries to understand “why bad things happen to good people.” (Title of Kushner’s bestseller.)

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    • Oh yeah, and some times the “bad” thing is very personal like the recent medical battle for the life of my grandson. I had A LOT of questions about the mystery of the divine plan.

      I also take systemic evil to task head on as something demanding collective responses. But I think that those responses cannot slip into vile prejudice just because the “evil” seems evident, like in the case of this organization.

      I would also contend that certain “religions” are demonized more than others and in effect can give religion as a whole a bad name.

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  4. Well done you! I really enjoyed your post here.

    Two questions: 1) what was the name of your mentor (his advice seems to be a standard talking point for many American scholars I have encountered) and 2) would the “sunnah” definition have a problem with ‘authencity’ given the differences between Sunni and Shia sunnah traditions i.e. who is a trustworthy transmitter of hadith?

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    • The late professor Dr. Fazlur Rahman.

      Both Sunni and Shi’ah Muslims claim the same allegiance to following the sunnah of the Prophet. That is not what distinguishes them although the words can confuse this matter, there is a history to the terminology.

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  5. I’m editing a book about Islam by a man I think is probably a reformist. We have interesting email conversations. I recently suggested that references in his book to ISIS/ISIL be changed to “the Islamic State group,” which is the term I’ve been hearing in news broadcasts. He’s declined to make this change because he says the group does not represent what Islam really is.

    I’ve also been saying that the group is an extreme example of testosterone poisoning. I’m serious! They’re nearly all young men and they’re holding (I almost wrote “fondling”) their pointy Freudian symbols that shoot things out. They’re like other gangs, only lots, lots, lots worse. I think what they really worship is violence for the sake of violence. Violence is their true god. It seems to me they have no idea what the Qur’an really says about anything.

    Amina, this is an excellent blog. You bring wisdom and balance to the discussion. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

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  6. Salaams Dr. Wadud,

    I am thrilled to read this because it’s been something I’ve thinking about for a while. I, too, feel very strongly that Islam isn’t owned by any group or sect or interpretation– but I have also have made this same statement about not letting *SIS represent MY religion and have wondered what right I have to reject their interpretation when they would reject mine. I’ve been struggling to put into words just why there is this important need to draw a line between what this particular group is doing and the vast, diverse practices that I accept as making up the worldwide religion of Islam. You have made the point beautifully.

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    • Busted! It was your tweet that refer to here. Clearly we are on the same page.

      As for the point that others would say our interpretation is not valid while crediting their own, my point here was there is no way that *SIS can show evidence in the sacred sources for the kinds of atrocities they are committing.

      I’ve never seen this extreme a manifestation that tries to claim some Islamic support.

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  7. Amina, what a wonderful blog post! I now understand in a much more nuanced way where your thinking comes from. It makes much clearer what you were saying about Ayaan Hirsi Ali a few months back. Thanks!

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  8. I try to be consistent with this. Thanks for pointing it out.

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  9. It’s always difficult debating Islam with a Muslim because of the simple fact that Muslims believe in the perfection and divinity of Islam, the Koran and Muhammed and I do not. You can’t pretend to be an objective observer when you won’t criticise or critically examine parts of your belief system that you believe to be perfect. The reality is that to most people the ‘Islamic State’ embodies Islam: intolerant, violent, supremicist, mysoginistic and frankly backwards. You can’t blame people for looking at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Boko Haram, IS, Hamas, Mauritania and the Islam in general and come out with a negative impression. People are sick of hearing about this or that bunch of Islamists murdering and raping in the name of their religion, as a non-Muslim I do not see why I should care about defending such a religion from criticism by treating its violent expression as ‘non-Islamic’. Also the fact that Islam has a lot to say about me as an ‘infidel’ gives me the right to criticise it in return. It makes huge claims of itself without any proof and disparages those who don’t buy it but frankly I’d be happy to just ignore Islam for the rest of my life but it’s impossible to do that while so many people are suffering because of it.

    Sorry to be blunt but I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way.

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    • Thank you for your comment, although clearly it is (in your words) “difficult to debate..” with you since (as you have also said) you “have the right to criticise”.

      I am sorry for your frustrations and hurt, but since you seem bent on addressing all the ills in the world, with the term “Islam” attached to them, including the ones against you personally–in one paragraph–I wouldn’t dare try to contradict.

      I also agree that you are not the only one that feels this way.

      But more importantly, I do not see any way that any resolve can be reached on this or any other matter unless we learn to discuss. Maybe that is just me, the one you claim “can’t pretend to be an objective observer”.

      all the best.

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  10. Thank you for your comments and wisdom…

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  11. I don’t see how the author reconciles her realization that definitions are related primarily to power with this: “So, I followed one of my intellectual mentors and agreed that for any discourse about Islam, a definition had to be established, agreed upon, and then consistently maintained…” She’s just laying claim to her own position in the power structure, no matter how basic her definition might be. The trials of heterodox and minority groups and individuals large and small happening today show the problems inherent in this approach.

    Ideally I would suggest instead that this idea of defining labels, of trying to control another’s ability to claim an identity, be done away with entirely. In the case of Islam, laying claim to membership (or, as in the case of ISIS, ownership) of the Islamic label and having actions and beliefs that are justified with appeals to Islam merit the label “Islamic.” I believe that speaking of ‘Islam’ as a thing with a definition, instead of an identity that a person claims and lives, is inherently oppressive. While I don’t think that abandoning the idea that one can tell another person what Islam really is will go away, it would be better if more people could just get past this whole debate.

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    • Thanks for your comment.

      Actually, I reduced a very long discussion from a book on teaching Islam in Religious Studies to just a few lines in order to stay as close to the word limit set for each blog. (In fact I went over that limit by 20% with permission)

      There were two considerations here. One is the integrity of not taking credit away from some one whose ideas made sense to me. Some one even asked his name later. It’s called a reference. Second is the simple understanding, in the humanities especially, that all discussions are centered on epistemology. EVERY word has a meaning and sometimes if the meaning is not clarified confusion arises and can just as quickly lead to confrontation. Like yours.

      You assert a definition, that Islam is identity. While I can see the merit of that in some ways, I also see that all identities are complex because people are complex. For even as I identify as Muslim, I do not identify with ISIS. So we are at a loggerhead. To resolve that loggerhead I refer to the particulars of Fazlur Rahman who said a criteria REFERENT needs to be established…even to have a debate.

      That criteria in Islam refers to it primary sources. He then gives evidence why this reference is what it is from the history of Islam and Islamic thought. Namely that not only has it marked the origins of this faith system, but for the entire 14 centuries plus it has been the basis for all disciplines within the fields of study related to Islamic thought and practice.

      My claim here, in case you missed it was that ISIS does not have a leg to stand on in the actions and atrocities they are performing because there is no reference for those actions. As such one cannot claim islam as an identity and then so blatantly violate its sources. In fact, exhaustive measures to determine when one is or is not Muslim have long been a part of orthodox discourse.

      It won’t go away just because you wish to assert your definition but deny me the right to assert mine, although I have evidence to support it. I asserted the power over my blog writing but none in the world of politics and violence. As such, I do not accept your counter definition, just because you pretend it is not one.

      Likewise, the debate wil not go away just because you or I wish that it would. In fact by your attempt to close further conversation you identify yourself as part of the problem. And for the sake of those whose lives have been taken in the spread of ISIS, innocent lives I might add, it is imperative that we keep the debates open as part of the task of finding a solution. No solution can result from a definition that Islam as identity because after some one justifies an armed attack on ISIS, and be sure this is in the works as we speak, then they could just as easily then plan an attack on me, since I self identify as Muslim or part of Islam.

      It is clear from the rise of Islamaphobia in the US and Eurooe, that such a criteria would suit a lot of people, but I hope they do not reduce such a complexity to such a simple and dangerous rule of thumb.

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      • Thank you for your reply.

        At the risk of the discussion devolving into back-and-forth accusations of whose approach is more problematic, I will assert more directly my belief that the specific claims that you make in your reply are specious and self-serving. Your participation in “exhaustive measures to determine when one is or is not Muslim” does the opposite of helping the cause of innocent people who insist on being viewed and treated as autonomous individuals with the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It subordinates them to arbitrary standards. Your use of this approach is confined to speech and so cannot be compared to Pakistan’s treatment of Ahmadiyya or ISIS’s treatment of Shia, but it should still be called out with speech.

        The reason I assert this is not to deny your right to speak, but because I do not share your idea that people can do something – anything – that is so beyond the pale that in the eyes of the world they lose their sincerely claimed religious identity latae sententiae. I think this approach to thinking about religion (which, as you note, is embedded in orthodox discourse) is inherently oppressive, it poisons debate and in its more malignant forms it demonstrably leads in the real world to the oppression and marginalization of countless groups and individuals.

        This holds true even if your overreaching claim that ISIS in particular has absolutely no reference for its actions in even the most absurd interpretation of Islamic “primary sources” were true. The only goal your approach serves is preventing you from being associated with ISIS by non-Muslims in the short-term. I have sympathy for this goal, but your approach does not combat the central idea of bigots that one can tell something about one Muslim from the actions of another Muslim, and so it does not resolve your loggerhead.

        My suggestion – that Islam be viewed as an identity that people claim and live – respects the reality that people are complex and will have alliances and disagreements about everything, even (especially) the “primary sources” of Islam. It is a method offered for how to speak about Islam that gets the wider world away from the endless and pointless debates about who is a “real Muslim.” Who are any of us to decide that? Because I am not wedded to the notion that Islam has immutable qualities that influence every Muslim in the same way, I am capable of seeing and treating you and an ISIS member as two individuals who share nothing in common except that you both will say, “I am Muslim.” Well, and also that you both claim the right to pronounce each other as outside of Islam and deserving of eternal punishment.

        I am open to suggestions on how to make my approach work better (or if necessary, wholesale replacements for it), in practice as well as theory. However, if you choose to reply, I would appreciate arguments more convincing than “EVERY word has a meaning.” My hope is that we can move toward debating about things the way they actually are rather than the way we wish they were.

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      • No where (here or elsewhere in my 42 years of Islamic scholarship and activism) do I deny any person–even persons I disagree with vehemently–the right to identify as Muslim.

        I only assert here that what ISIS is doing has no textual basis. As such there is mutual support to eradicate them and to stop such violations by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

        I approach all forms of discrimination with the same objectives and agenda whether for Muslims or by Muslims. Anyone who abuses another human being for their own nefarious purposes I consider in violation of basic dignity. I approach them all the same way with a commitment to justice and equality.

        I do not find your approach merely problematic, I find it ill informed and borderline venomous. Surely there is some basis for your attack on me, but as I said, I do NOT apologize for what I did not do.

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  12. This reminds me of conversations I used to have with my friends about whether Christianity is (inherently or essentially) sexist (as Mary Daly said) or not. This conversation dissolved when we agreed that this question is irrelevant because (not matter what its history has been) any tradition can be transformed if enough of its adherents want it to be.

    Is Christianity or Islam oppressive to women? Is Christianity or Islam x y or z. Depends on who you ask and which strands of traditions he or she chooses to highlight and which she or he chooses to place in the background, revision, or ignore. Can Christianity or Islam be interpreted in such a way as to be oppressive to women? Yes. Can Christianity or Islam be interpreted in such a way as to promote the full humanity of women? Yes. Which is the real Christianity or Islam? This question is open to interpretation.

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    • I think this holds especially true for Islam where you don’t have huge mega institutions that control how the religion is understood and practiced. People always talk about “Islamic clerics” and “mullahs” but if you look at a lot of the founders of radical Islamic movements they’re literary critics, teachers, journalists etc. They don’t represent some kind of larger institution.

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  13. Religion is the current interpretation of its followers.
    I’m sorry to say that, but I’m sick of western based religious apoligists debating what is Islam and what’s not while we’re here in the middle east waiting to get slaughtered at the hands of people labeling themselves as Muslims.
    You should ask yourself, what’s political Islam? How did it evolve to become what it is right now in the middle east and outside it?
    What is Ikhwan? Wahhabi? Salafi? Why so many muslims agree with Ibn Taymiya? Sayed Qotob? Muhammad Ibn abdel wahhab? Is Islamic doctrine and its social manifestations independent of them?
    News flash! The debate here is not about if Yazidis, Shia or Christians have the right to live and practice their religion peacefully, but if Baghdadi qualifies as a “wali al amer” that can take the decision to slaughter them and if they were properly invited to Islam and that if this would be enough to justify their slaughter.
    You have become so western centric that all you think about is apologizing for the west on behalf of Islam and moaning day and night about islamophobia when minorities in the west get treated a thousand times better than any minority in the muslim world.

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  14. It’s perfectly understandable that some of the realities you are facing day to day should be seen in the light of their critical impact on the lives and well being of your self and those around you.

    However, since you do NOT know me, nor my life work you should refrain from making accusations about what I do, what I think, and what I say–short of actual words in this short essay. Since you are way off the mark anyway.

    It does no one any good to be the brunt of someone else’s complaints about (real or imagined) difficulties. So do not try to make me the scapegoat. Trust me, brother. What you are facing is not my fault and as I said, while I don’t condone it, I don’t apologize for it eithe

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    • I’m not scapegoating you. I’m frustrated because I feel that we are living on different planets.
      Regardless of the scriptures, social manifestations of Islam and its current political “Islams” is devastating for everyone in the “Umma”.
      Debating who’s Muslim and who Isn’t is like debating who’s feminist and who’s not or who’s black and who’s not.
      Scapegoating IS for the failings of social and political Islam is not the answer. Yesterday it was Al-Qaeda, today it’s IS, tomorrow it’s something else. We cannot just wash our hands and deny them the label to feel better about ourselves.
      IS ideology is part of Islam as much as Sufi, Alawi or Wilayat Al Faqih are. It’s not something new and neither is it something that will go away by bombing it, cursing it to hell or denying it the use of the word Islam.
      It’s religious fundamentalism pure and simple, fighting it with scripture is what they want, because they can drag you into it whole year long arguing about a situation or a word and how it’s supposed to be understood. Worse is that fundamentalism is on the rise and you can feel it In Istanbul, Cairo, Dar Assalam, Lahore, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur… Etc. And all of that while you’re busy defending and apologizing (yes you are, your article is just that while striving to deny it) for an Islam that’s socially inexistent apart from a handful of your followers.

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      • Race and religion are not the same category. I’ve yet to see any white person become Black just by choice. I am Black and it will not change by any configuration I choose, while I am Muslim by choice.

        How I “feel” about myself is not in doubt because you or ISIL disagree with me or accuse me of something I have no interest in doing or being.

        I have endeavored to distinguish what ISIL is DOING and the sacred sources of Islamic history, thought and practice–not whether they are Muslims or not. Muslims do things outside of the mandates of the sacred sources all the time.

        You have taken as much of my time now as I will grant. I see it is impossible for you to discuss a point without a lot of finger pointing and name calling, none of which I take any credit for so there could not be seen as apologizing for..

        All I concede is that you seem incapable of thinking outside the boxes you create and then attack me because I won’t get in them with you.

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