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Is ISIS Authentically Islamic? Ask Better Questions.

The pitched battle of religious legitimacy.

Younis Al-Bayati / Getty Images

Judging by the gurgling over the genuineness of ISIS’ Muslim identity currently issuing from media, you’d think American journalism is replete with scholars of Islam. But the U.S. commentariat is not especially proficient in the study of Islam, and the American public sphere is exactly the wrong place to try to hold a conversation on the authenticity of a group’s religious bona fides.

Nonetheless, people have tried. Kareem Abdul Jabbar weighed in during an interview with Joe Scarborough, suggesting that the title of a religion does not ensure its proper practice as he compared ISIS’ relationship with Islam to the Klu Klux Klan’s relationship with Christianity. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama argued that ISIS betrays the “true peaceful nature of Islam,”—and promotes a brutally deformed version of the religion itself—in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. Obama’s analysis appears to be based on the testimonies of lay Muslims and experts in the religion; that foundation did not satisfy some.

Breitbart, for example, has already published a counter-claim, insisting that ISIS is, contra Obama, explicitly Islamic. The Breitbart article heavily cites Graeme Wood’s carefully researched Atlantic essay on the subject of ISIS’ goals, which identifies the group as “very Islamic” and invested in apocalyptic outcomes. Wood writes that “the religion preached by [ISIS’] most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam,” and his essay features commentary from experts on the military group and its ideology. His treatment of ISIS’ theology is careful, but is, as Jack Jenkins points out at ThinkProgress, incomplete: When it comes to the matter of interpretive authority within a religious group, a single essay, no matter how well-researched, is unlikely to encompass the breadth of the debate.

And even if one magazine piece could truly represent the depth and intensity of the interpretive arguments that develop within any longstanding faith, it is unlikely such a piece could do justice to the real kernel of such debates: the problem of sourcing religious authority. Where do we find it? Is it in scriptures, in the practice of rituals and sacraments, in the general faith of believers, or in some combination of all of those things? What makes a literal, ahistorical reading of religious texts more authentic than a reading that incorporates context and historical consideration, as well as the readers’ sense of spiritual guidance?

Furthermore, is an unmediated reading even possible, considering that the decision is usually the result of a post-modern angst over lost authenticity? Wood’s essay stumbles onto problems of this nature—for instance, ISIS theologians are unable to articulate what prophetic accounts of “Rome” refer to now that the Pope leads no armies, the city commands no empires. The inheritor of the historical epithet is unclear.

There are answers to these hermeneutical problems, and producing them supplies much grist for the mills of religious studies scholars and theologians, not to mention the daily contemplations of ordinary believers. But these are not the kinds of questions that can be answered in the terms we rely on within the typical framework of public debate in our liberal democracy. Our public deliberation relies on the idea that 'religion' is a constant, stable category that can be established empirically, but is not sensitive to the internal logics of individual religions. In September 2014, more than 120 scholars of Islam from around the world directed a letter to ISIS, in which they carefully detailed the multifarious ways the militant group defies the laws and obligations of Islam. “The letter is written in Arabic. It is using heavy classical religious texts and classical religious scholars that ISIS has used to mobilize young people to join its forces,” Nihad Award, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations said at the time.“This letter is not meant for a liberal audience.”

Awad wasn’t using ‘liberal’ in the way it is pejoratively deployed on Fox talk shows, but in its purest sense, the sense that refers to the intellectual attitude arising from the Enlightenment, the one that still colors much of our political discourse. These Enlightenment ideas include the notion of a religious tolerance that confines certain beliefs and practices to a specifically religious sphere, and the idea that reason provides a stable, universally accessible guide to investigating all manner of problems. In the liberal mindset that gives us individual rights, freedom of belief among them, religion is a broad category into which almost any belief or practice can be promised an equal guarantee of protection in the eyes of the law. In the liberal formation, a lapsed Catholic who rarely makes it to Mass is as authentically ‘religious’ as the deeply observant Jew who never works on Shabbat. Which, for the purposes of our government, is a good thing.

But since most of our public discussions of religion take place within this liberal framework, we lack a grammar and vocabulary for arguing about the content of religions in the public sphere. Because our presumptions about how to source religious authority are largely private and rarely interrogated in public (especially in interfaith contexts) we presume those assumptions are either broadly shared or simply correct, and base our public statements about the authenticity of religious belief and practice on them.

And yet, determining religious legitimacy would require not only a debate about how authority is sourced in each particular tradition, but an understanding of what relationship to that authority would produce authenticity. It would also require some sort of agreement on the identity of the person or group making the call, and their right to do so. After all, even if ISIS is ‘Muslim’ because they use Islamic texts and incorporate some elements of Islamic history into their political practice, isn’t it possible they’re bad Muslims, heretical Muslims, or some sort of ‘lapsed’ Muslims—still Muslim, but without the broadly damning consequences of less qualified labels? Our public discussions rarely penetrate this deeply into the matter precisely because we are not used to establishing the authentic content of religions. A moment of high religious tension is probably not the best one in which to try to develop a public language for debating these truths. And since we are neither equipped nor posed to develop such a language right now, the question of whether or not ISIS is authentically Muslim seems endlessly fraught and otiose.

It would be better to meditate on what we are trying to accomplish when we set out to determine whether or not ISIS can be properly called Islamic. I doubt the goal is purely academic. And if the idea is to foment widespread agreement that Islam necessitates the horrific brutality on display in ISIS’ communications, then it’s nothing more than propaganda—a pyrrhic victory.