Common Word, Common Lord

In the Name of God: The Infinitely Merciful and Compassionate Beloved Lord

In the widely-cited, and very long, article by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, it is written:

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.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.

Now, there is much in this article that is quite problematic. As its proof of ISIS’ “Islamicness,” it cites one scholar who is not even Muslim and backs it up by interviewing the likes of Anjem Choudhry, a well-know British Muslim extremist. Really? Would any journalist dare do the same with Judaism, for instance? Of course not. Cough…Double Standard…Cough.

That said, let us take his point head on. Is ISIS truly “Very Islamic,” as Wood claims? Already, there have been numerous scholarly – and very good – responses to the article. Think Progress has even interviewed the scholar cited in the piece, Bernard Haykal, to get more detail about his views.

Yet, let us take this passage:

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Let us deal with one of these behaviors, namely, beheadings. Is this Islamic? Enter this verse:

Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully… (47:4)

Are you saying, “Gotcha!”? Have I been disproven?

Umm…no. The verse is speaking about meeting the enemy on the battlefield, and it is encouraging the believers to fight vigorously. Isn’t this normal? Wouldn’t you want to have your soldiers fight valiantly on the battlefield? This is what the verse is doing: exhorting them to fight valiantly on the battlefield.

What about the words “smite their necks”? Aren’t the savages of ISIS following the letter of the Qur’an with their gruesome beheadings? No. At the time the verse was revealed, the main weapon of war was…a sword. And, when you kill your enemy on the battlefield with a sword, many times you strike at his neck. This is what the verse is saying.

The verse is NOT saying kidnap a relief worker (or journalist) – helping to relieve the terrible suffering of the Syrian people – and then behead them on camera if their sick demands are not met. The verse is NOT saying kidnap 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians and behead them on camera. No way can this verse be used to justify these horrific practices.

Moreover, here is the verse in full:

Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks until you overcome them fully, and then tighten their bonds; but thereafter [set them free,] either by an act of grace or against ransom, so that the burden of war may be lifted: thus [shall it be]. And [know that] had God so willed, He could indeed punish them [Himself]; but [He wills you to struggle] so as to test you [all] by means of one another. And as for those who are slain in God’s cause, never will He let their deeds go to waste.

According to almost all classical Qur’anic exegesis, “tighten their bonds” means take prisoners of war. It must noted that this verse was revealed at a time when prisoners of war were typically mercilessly slaughtered. The Qur’an sets a standard by which these prisoners of war – not kidnapped civilians – can be eventually set free.

Moreover, the “ransom” mentioned in the verse can also comprise – according to some interpretations – a mutual exchange of prisoners of war. In fact, after the first major battle during the Prophet Muhamamad’s life – the Battle of Badr – some prisoners of war were set free after teaching ten Muslims reading and writing.

If anyone in ISIS thinks that kidnapping innocent people and then beheading them for the camera can be justified by a reading of verse 47:4, then he must have a serious psychological problem. This is why we Muslims – the vast, vast majority of us – say that ISIS is “un-Islamic.” They have no understanding of the very basic tenets and principles of Islam, and they use a horrifically simplistic and psychopathic reading of Islamic texts to justify their actions.

Yes, they may call themselves Muslim, but their actions are wholly antithetical to very essence of our faith. Their actions are not normative Islamic practice; they are barbarism par excellence. Contrary to Wood’s claim, ISIS is not “Very Islamic”; it is Very barbaric.


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