I’ve noted several times lately that the Western intelligentsia is deeply concerned that you have a positive view of Islam — hence the steady barrage of articles explaining that those masked men brandishing Qur’ans and screaming “Allahu akbar” as they saw off Infidel heads don’t really have anything, anything at all, to do with the belief system that they name as their guiding inspiration and motivation.
Also, the Arbiters of Acceptable Opinion were deeply shaken by Graeme Wood’s piece in the March edition of The Atlantic, explaining why “the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” All the recent exonerations of Islam that I’ve discussed here at Jihad Watch — by Juan Cole, Haroon Moghul in Salon, and Loren Thompson in Forbes — and others have discussed and dismissed it. I said this about Wood’s article when it first came out: “In any case, this is a momentous article: it may (may) represent a crack in the edifice, a blade of grass poking through the concrete, a tardy surrender of at least one bastion of politically correct wishful thinking to the overwhelming force of reality. We shall see.” The academic and media elites clearly agree, and are accordingly circling the wagons and opening full rhetorical fire on Wood.
This latest apologia for Islam also hits Wood, and appears, as did his piece, in The Atlantic — a bit of penance, perhaps, from The Atlantic’s editors for straying off the reservation: “Won’t happen again, folks, see? Here’s a piece by Muslim academic Caner K. Dagli explaining how Wood is wrong. Now will you stop disinviting us from the best parties?”
Caner K. Dagli is associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, and yet another in an apparently endless stream of arrogant, rude, hostile, condescending, and hate-filled Islamic supremacists. In this piece, despite its title, he never quite gets around to explaining why the Islamic State’s Islam is “phony,” but he generates a lot of smoke and fog to make you think he has: “The Phony Islam of ISIS,” by Caner K. Dagli, The Atlantic, February 27, 2015:
Following the publication of his Atlantic cover story, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood has challenged critics who claim that he misrepresented Islamic belief, noting, “It’s instructive to see how responses to my piece reckon with or ignore this line: ‘Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do.’” But Wood’s entire essay implies that such a rejection of ISIS by other Muslims can only be hypocritical or naive, and that ISIS members and supporters follow the texts of Islam as faithfully and seriously as anyone.
When one is dealing on the level of implications, he has already departed from serious analysis, but taking Dagli seriously here, there are other options. If Wood is right that the Islamic State is following Islamic texts and teachings, a rejection of the Islamic State by other Muslims need not mean that they’re either hypocritical or naive. They could have a different interpretation of the relevant texts. Or they could be ignorant of the relevant teachings.
Dagli also complains that Wood’s essay “implies” that “ISIS members and supporters follow the texts of Islam as faithfully and seriously as anyone,” which it doesn’t actually “imply,” but states straight out. Dagli apparently finds this very suggestion offensive. One wonders what he is doing within his Muslim community to counter the Islamic State’s understanding of Islam — or is he saving all his venom for non-Muslims like Wood who dare to notice that the Islamic State jihadis can and do cite the Qur’an to justify their actions?
The main expert in Wood’s article is Princeton University professor Bernard Haykel, who “regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. … In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war.”
Put another way: Not only are Muslims wrong that ISIS is distorting Islamic texts, but the very idea is preposterous. ISIS is faithfully following Islamic norms of war. All of this might lead a thoughtful reader to wonder what all the other Muslims are doing.
Indeed — what I wonder is, what is Dagli doing, and what are other Muslims who reject the Islamic State doing, to keep young Muslims from getting the idea that the Islamic State is right and trying to join it? Does he expect them to read The Atlantic? Or is he more interested in making non-Muslims, rather than Muslims, believe that the Islamic State is un-Islamic?
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Wood quotes Haykel’s invocation of an axiom, common in academic discourse, that there is no such thing as ‘Islam,’ rather, “It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Presumably Wood does this in order to emphasize that he is not personally offering a criterion to judge who is a good or bad Muslim. But he introduces just such a criterion: namely, that a Muslim is evaluated according to his or her interpretation of these texts. His article evaluates ISIS against other Muslims on this basis.
“What’s striking about [ISIS] is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”
But who decides who takes the texts seriously? On what grounds do non-Muslim journalists and academics tell Muslims that their judgment that ISIS does not take a full and fair view of the Quran and Sunnah (the example and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) amounts to a “cotton-candy” view of Islam, while these non-Muslims retain the right to judge how “serious” ISIS is in its understanding of core Islamic texts?
How about this: when Muslims who judge that the Islamic State doesn’t take a full and fair view of the Qur’an and Sunnah fail to mention significant texts that the Islamic State uses to justify its actions, is one permitted to question their seriousness? Tahir ul-Qadri’s vaunted 300-page fatwa against terrorism doesn’t even mention the passages of the Qur’an that exhort believers to violence against unbelievers. Is that really a “serious” attempt to dissuade Muslims from joining such groups? And the much-touted recent “Letter to Baghdadi” from Muslim scholars to the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State endorsed central concepts of jihad doctrine that Western analysts usually think are limited only to “extremists” — is that a “serious” attempt to turn Muslims away from “extremism”?
If we take the “It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts” axiom seriously, then there would be no grounds to declare that a Muslim who believes in a pantheon of gods is unfaithful to the teachings of Islam. After all, the Quran, speaking with the Divine Voice, often uses the royal “We” when addressing Muslims. Would this belief in multiple gods also be ‘Islam’? Would these polytheistic Muslims have “just as much legitimacy as anyone else” because they are drawing on the same texts as other Muslims?
Can we extend the axiom of “There is no X, there is only what followers of X do and how they interpret their texts” beyond Islam? If a scientist claims, “Eugenics is not a valid application of the principles of science, and is unscientific,” should he expect to be told that the eugenicists were “just as legitimate as anyone else” because they are following the same body of texts? Were not the eugenicists “serious” and “assiduous” in their science, at least in their own eyes? Did they not speak the language of science, and base themselves on Darwin?
Dagli’s point here is that quoting the Qur’an and invoking Muhammad’s example doesn’t make the Islamic State legitimately Islamic, for there could theoretically arise a group that quotes the Qur’an to propose doctrines that stand in flat contradiction to other statements of the Qur’an. That’s a reasonable point, but it only has weight if he can establish that the Islamic State is contradicting clear teachings of Islam — for that, read on. Meanwhile, note that Dagli is here committing the crime of “essentialism”: he is clearly positing that Islam is and is not certain things, contradicting Juan Cole (whom he no doubt considers an ally), who excoriates “Islamophobes” for daring to think that Islam stands for and teaches anything in particular.
The charge of “essentialism” is generally leveled against foes of jihad terror who note that all the sects of Islam and schools of Islamic jurisprudence teach warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers: it’s simplistic and wrong, we’re told, to say that Islam teaches certain things and doesn’t teach others — as Reza Aslan says, Islam and all other religions can be “molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires.” This is, of course, nonsense — religions do teach certain things and cultivate certain attitudes, and Dagli is affirming that here, no doubt without realizing that in doing so he is doing what others have been charged with “Islamophobia” for doing.
Will Cole and Aslan read him out of the club of those with approved opinions? Of course not, for their silly logic-chopping and Dagli’s contradiction of it both serve the same purpose: to exonerate Islam from all responsibility for the crimes done in its name and in accord with its teachings.
In fact, no one acknowledges that all interpretations of their own system of ultimate meaning are equally authentic or faithful, whether this system is scientism, communism, post-modernism, or any other metaphysical commitment including religion. It is arbitrary to present the Islamic interpretative tradition as an unrestricted free-for-all where nothing is assessed on objective rational or moral criteria, in which every last impulse or assertion is equal to all other responses and can never be subjected to judgment or ranking.
Indeed. I couldn’t agree more. So it is up to Dagli now to establish that his interpretation of Islam is more authentic and faithful to the texts than that of the Islamic State, or to specify on what he bases his “objective rational or moral criteria,” if not on those texts.
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What other Muslims have been arguing from the start is that ISIS does not take the texts seriously.
The Quran is a single volume, roughly the length of the New Testament. It is a complex and nuanced text that deals with legal, moral, and metaphysical questions in a subtle and multifaceted way. Then there are the hadīth, or records of sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad, which run into dozens of volumes spanning literally hundreds of thousands of texts, each on average a few sentences long. Then there is the juridical and theological literature about the Quran and the hadīth, which consists of thousands of works written throughout Islamic history.
Does ISIS cite “texts”? Yes, though its main method is to cite individual ḥadīth that support its positions. But remember: The ḥadīth consist of hundreds of thousands of discrete items that range from faithfully transmitted teachings to outright fabrications attributed to the Prophet, and every gradation in between.
If Dagli means to say here that the Islamic State is citing hadith that are “outright fabrications,” he should provide an example. He doesn’t.
Over the centuries, jurists and theologians of every stripe, Sunni and Shiite, have devised rational, systematic methods for sifting through ḥadīth, which are often difficult to understand or seem to say contrary things about the same questions.
This is because they do say contradictory things about the same questions, since the hadith literature was fabricated by rival factions inventing sayings of Muhammad to justify their own positions, this is to be expected. For example, in some hadiths Muhammad forbids killing women and children, but another says: “It is reported on the authority of Sa’b b. Jaththama that the Prophet of Allah (may peace be upon him), when asked about the women and children of the polytheists being killed during the night raid, said: They are from them.” (Muslim 4321) That is, it is permissible to kill the women and children, because they are of the pagans.
They have ranked and classified these texts according to how reliable they are, and have used them accordingly in law and theology. But ISIS does not do this. Its members search for text snippets that support their argument, claim that these fragments are reliable even if they are not, and disregard all contrary evidence—not to mention Islam’s vast and varied intellectual and legal tradition. Their so-called “prophetic methodology” is nothing more than cherry-picking what they like and ignoring what they do not.
Can we please have an example of the Islamic State doing this — citing a hadith that Muslim scholars consider inauthentic and disregarding contradictory texts? Not from Caner K. Dagli.
“Lacing” one’s conversation with religious imagery is easy. Mastering a vast textual tradition is hard.
So also, apparently, is citing examples to buttress one’s argument.
Furthermore, it is past time to dispense with the idea that organizations like ISIS are “literalist” in their reading of texts. Do the members of ISIS believe, literally, “Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God?” Of course not. Nor would they interpret literally, “God is the light of the heavens and the earth,” or any number of other passages from the Quran that the so-called “literalists” are compelled to either ignore or read as some kind of metaphor or allegory. I’d like to see ISIS offer a “literal” interpretation of the ḥadīth that says that when God loves a person, He “becomes the ear with which he hears, the eye with which he sees, the hand with which he grasps, and the foot with which he walks.”
Great, but none of this does anything to establish that the Islamic State is misreading passages such as “slay the polytheists wherever you find them” (Qur’an 9:5; cf. 2:191, 4:89).
What distinguishes the interpretive approach of groups like ISIS from others is not its literalism (Sufis are indeed the most “literal” of all such interpreters of the Quran) but its narrowness and rigidity; for the adherents of ISIS, the Quran means exactly one thing, and other levels of meaning or alternate interpretations are ruled out a priori. This is not literalism. It is exclusivism.
Fine. Maybe the Islamic State is wrong to rule out interpretations of the Qur’an besides its own. But does its doing so mean that its interpretation is wrong? Dagli has still not established it.
Wood expands on his impression of the religious seriousness of ISIS fighters by pointing out that they speak in coded language, which in reality consists of “specific traditions and texts of early Islam.” Speeches are “laced with theological and legal discussion.” But there is a wide chasm between someone who “laces” his conversations with religious imagery (very easy) and someone who has actually studied and understood the difficulties and nuances of an immense textual tradition (very hard). I personally know enough Shakespeare to “lace” my conversations with quotations from Hamlet and the sonnets. Does that make me a serious Shakespeare scholar? I can “code” my language with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but is that proof of my assiduousness in relation to the Bard?
This is just a red herring. Wood actually pointed out specifics regarding the Islamic State’s use of the Qur’an: “Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.” And: “The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews ‘until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.’ The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.”
Notice that when he quotes Wood, Dagli doesn’t include those passages. So, Professor, does the Qur’an specify this tax upon Christians, as the hallmark of their subjugation, or does it not? If not, how are the Islamic State jihadis misusing the Qur’anic passage in question? We aren’t going to find out from Caner K. Dagli.
Dagli goes on to quibble at great length about the meaning of the term “un-Islamic” and its applicability to the Islamic State, and then begins to complain that the real problem is that anyone might be concerned about Islam:
“The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.
In my experience, many Muslims are upset by articles like this not because their feelings are hurt, but because such arguments fill them with dread. They worry about what might happen to a religious or ethnic group that policymakers or the public believe to be intrinsically and uniquely dangerous.
When extremist groups like ISIS commit an atrocity or make the news, politicians and commentators inevitably lament how Muslims are not doing enough to “speak out” against the crimes carried out in their name. But when Muslims do “speak out” and “condemn,” as they always have, this seems to only reinforce the tendency to blame Muslims collectively. And if one relies on Wood and Haykel, and believes that the horrors perpetrated by ISIS are “plainly” in Islam’s sacred texts and that it is “preposterous” to argue that these texts are being distorted, then the notion that a faithful Muslim could be critiquing ISIS in a moral and rational fashion is discarded. He can only be a sympathizer, a hypocrite, or a dupe who is ignorant of the requirements of his own faith. Wood’s essay leaves readers with a gnawing fear that the majority of Muslims might wake up tomorrow and start taking their texts “seriously.”
All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims “speak out.” But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us. Muslims are presented with a brutal logic in which the only way to truly disassociate from ISIS and escape suspicion is to renounce Islam altogether.
Dagli leaves out one possibility: he could be a sincere, genuine reformer, acknowledging that the Islamic State is working from core traditions and mainstream understandings of Islam, and declaring that these have to be confronted and changed. Condemnation and speaking out aren’t enough — Muslims in unprecedented numbers are traveling from the West to join the Islamic State. In light of that, articles like Dagli’s appear particularly cynical and deceptive: his house is on fire, and he is complaining that someone has the temerity to ask him to help put it out.
And so the fire will continue to rage.