Last week, Graeme Wood caused quite a stir with his article “What ISIS Really Wants.” It focused on the apocalyptic religious vision of the group and contended that ISIS was, as a scholar quoted in the article put it, “smack in the middle of the medieval tradition,” including on the things most shock and repulse observers, such as slavery.
Though Wood grants that most Muslims do not support ISIS, and acknowledges in passing the role of interpretation in formulating its doctrines, the overall impression conveyed by the article was that Muslims who deny that ISIS is a fair representation of Islam are either apologists or simply do not really know anything about Islam. Others have offered rebuttals of many of the points in the article, and Bernard Haykel, the scholar quoted, has offered a more nuanced articulation of his views. More than one commentator has pointed out that by treating ISIS as a legitimate representative of the Islamic tradition, seriously religious and dedicated to the texts “shared by all Sunni Muslims,” it fosters an unholy convergence of interests between extremist Muslims and Islamophobes.
Wood is right about some things and wrong about others. ISIS is laying claim to the tradition and the texts they cite are in what we may call the canon. Still, to quote approvingly and without clarification Haykel’s contention that “these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else,” seems quite a stretch. To be sure, it is not the job of religious studies scholars (or U. S. presidents) to judge which groups are “Islamic” or “un-Islamic.” Rather, we must understand how various actors make claims to represent, understand, or further their tradition. That does not mean there are no distinctions that can be made, no criteria by which to situate those religious claims in a historical and social framework.
Some attempts to assess ISIS’s legitimacy have focused on the fact that reputable Muslim authorities – clerics, scholars, ‘ulama – uniformly distance themselves from ISIS and condemn its brutal tactics. Though unwilling (for sound theological reasons) to declare leaders or followers of the Islamic State apostates, some have been willing to describe its actions as sinful, evil, or even “un-Islamic.”
But these arguments from authority worry me too. When women do something “impermissible” – lead Friday prayer, open a Women’s Mosque, interpret the Qur’an in feminist ways – self-described “traditional” Muslims offer similar condemnations: these acts, and these actors, are outside the pale of tradition. Regardless of the sophistication of the arguments presented, the response is that those who make them are not properly trained. What authority do they have? In sum: how dare they?
These specious criticisms are nearly impossible to counter, even when those spouting them do not necessarily offer more nuanced or methodologically sophisticated answers. The simple appeal to widespread scholarly agreement leaves me unconvinced.
Take the example of the Open Letter to Baghdadi published last September. Among other things, it condemns ISIS’s violation of what the letter describes as a century-old consensus on the abolition of slavery. (Though presented in a press conference, the letter attracted virtually no attention from the mainstream media – unlike the shocking violence that prompted it.) Undoubtedly well-intentioned, the letter makes a hash of both history and the classical tradition, with its ahistorical declarations (“No scholar of Islam disputes that one of Islam’s aims is to abolish slavery”) and simplistic proclamations of things that are “forbidden in Islam.” The letter was signed by 126 male Sunni scholars and leaders from around the world. Since its publication online, others, including a handful of women, have signed.
Admittedly, this letter, which affirms “the prohibition and criminalization of slavery” as “a milestone in human history,” offers a much more compelling ideal than ISIS’s propaganda magazine, which signals “enslaving the families of the [disbelievers] and taking their women as concubines” as a sign of its own legitimacy and prowess, and reminds its readers that denying or mocking scriptural permissibility for slavery renders one not merely “weak-minded and weak hearted” but also an apostate. Still, however appealing it is to believe that slavery was, as the letter states, “something the Shariah worked tirelessly to undo,” such wishful thinking does not provide a firm foundation for criticizing contemporary injustices.
The most troubling thing about the Atlantic article is the static definition of tradition that Wood uses. In his view, tradition is a body of texts. Legitimacy emerges from texts. Practices consonant with the texts – or that are interpreted as being so – are therefore “Islamic.” Muslims who say otherwise – as he admits the overwhelming majority do when confronted with ISIS – do not have much ground to stand on. But the rejection of ISIS on the basis of its distance from the classical tradition and its unacceptability to contemporary scholars who claim to constitute the legitimate inheritors of that tradition is not a panacea either. Too frequently, the weapon of “scholarly consensus” has been wielded against Muslim women who overstep its bounds—not, as ISIS has done, in a quest for domination, but in a quest for dignity.
Kecia Ali, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University where she teaches a range of classes related to Islam. She writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. Her newest books are The Lives of Muhammad and the co-edited Guide for Women in Religion, revised edition. Her earlier books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006),Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). She currently serves on the Membership Task Force of the American Academy of Religion and serves as president of theSociety for the Study of Muslim Ethics. She lives in the Boston area with her family.