Saturday, 28 February 2015

ISIS and Islam: version or perversion?

The atrocities of ISIS have reawakened the debate about whether people who claim to commit terrible human rights abuses in the name of Islam are falsely clothing their crimes in the mantle of a misinterpreted religion, or else can justify their actions by deploying interpretations of the Qur'an and Sunnah which, while abhorrent to most, are comprehensible within the traditions and debates of the faith.  In other words, whether ISIS's creed is a perversion, or just a version, of Islam.

The Atlantic has published an article on either side.  The first argued:
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.
The response in this article argued back thus:
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. 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.

When I reviewed Jonathan Brown's book, Misquoting Muhammad, I focussed on the issue of how much leeway the canons of Islamic authority, the Qur'an and the Sunnah recorded in hadiths, allow the interpreter who seeks to use them for moral guidance.  As I wrote, the book left me:
with the feeling that Islam is so open to interpretation that its adherents have great leeway in deriving implications from its sources of authority, and that while little is definitively mandated, by the same token much seems not to be definitively ruled out.  This may be a bias of the author's focus on differences in interpretation rather than commonalities, but on the other hand his examples cover a huge spread of issues.

My final, more personal conclusion is summed up by Brown's lengthy discussion of how many scholars have tried to interpret away the Qur'an's apparent permission for husbands to strike their wives.  They seem to have tried every interpretative strategy to generate the result they seek.  It is not easy, though, to find an acceptable meaning for the verb in question that makes sense of the Hadith saying that if husbands strike their wives then it may be only "with a light blow that leaves no mark."  This verse, for once, seems to be an indisputable permission, albeit in however limited circumstances, to use violence.  Yet, having found an island of clarity, many believers go out of their way to reject it.
So, based on my light reading, I am open to the possibility that ISIS may be operating at the extremes of Islamic interpretation, rather than crossing the line into outright perversion of the authoritative canons.

My take on modern liberal religion is that it largely reflects the secular cultural influences of the time and place, with selected religious principles recalled and lauded pick-and-mix style just because they happen to agree with the modern citizen's outlook.  Similarly, violent extremists in certainly all the Abrahamic traditions have been able to pick and mix what they wanted to find in the texts.  I am aware of how the consensus of any age on a matter of interpretation might reflect the times, rather than being a lasting and obvious implication of the texts.

For example, as I noted on the issue of aggressive jihad:
As Brown notes, a medieval consensus accepted that the "Sword verses" of Sura 9 abrogated (replaced) all previously revealed "principles of proportionality and non-aggression", so that:
Jihad for the expansion of the Abode of Islam thus became a collective duty for the Muslim polity according to all Sunni schools of law. ... Jihad was understood as the unceasing quest to ‘make God’s word supreme,’ as Hadiths described, through the ongoing expansion of the rule of God’s law on earth.
That is, all Sunni schools of law accepted a conclusion for centuries following the establishment of Islam that virtually all Sunni ulema now repudiate.  If it is possible to take the same set of authoritative sources, and yet derive at two points in time two such radically opposite consensuses of expert jurists on the same vital question, then one must ask whether the supposedly authoritative, prophetic sources provide any firm guidance at all on the matter.
I obviously lack the expertise to consider ISIS as a whole, or give a learned exposition of the rights and wrongs of its claims to be the exponent of authentic Islam.  But I can at least take one issue and research it the best I can to see whether ISIS's approach seems to fit into the canons and traditions of Islam.  I am very happy to be corrected or directed to further reading by more learned people than me.  Certainly many Islamic scholars claim that ISIS's whole programme is contrary to Islam, but I am not convinced that such a diverse tradition can be reduced to such simple exclusionary statements.  For example, how convincing is the argument that "slavery was abolished by universal consensus" when it was clearly part of the medieval tradition that ISIS regard themselves as returning to?

I will take ISIS's genocidal attacks on the Yazidis as my topic.  ISIS have been massacring, enslaving, raping and forcibly converting them.  ISIS have been classing members of the Yazidi religious minority in the Quranic category of polytheists (mushrikeen), guilty of the sin of shirk, according worship and divine characteristic to beings other than God.  ISIS characterise Yazidi belief as worship of a fallen angel.  The ISIS take on the Yazidis can be read in this pdf, a translation of an official ISIS publication.

Are Yazidis really polytheists in the Islamic sense?  This Yazidi website gives one explanation of part of their belief system:
The Yezidi (Yazidi) cosmology and religion is non-dual. They thus acknowledge an inactive, static and transcendental God who created, or “became”, Seven Great Angels, the leader of which was Tawsi Melek, the Peacock “King” or Peacock “Angel”. ...
Leading up to the creation of the cosmos, many Yezidis believe that the Supreme God was originally “over the seas”, a notion reminiscent of the Biblical passage: “And the Spirit of God (as seven Elohim) moved upon the face of the waters.” While playing with a white pearl, state the Yezidis, their Supreme God cast it into this cosmic sea. The pearl was broken and served as the substance from which the Earth and other planets and stars came into being.

The Supreme God then created or manifested a vehicle for completing the creation of the universe. This was the first and greatest angel, Tawsi Melek, the Peacock Angel. Since Tawsi Melek embodied the power and wisdom of the Supreme God he was easily able to know and carry out His bidding. Six more Great Angels were then created to assist Tawsi Melek in his work. ...
Tawsi Melek then traveled to the Garden of Eden to meet Adam. The first human had been created without a soul, so Tawsi Melek blew the breath of life into him.
Taking these descriptions of Yazidi belief at face-value, it seems plain that the great angel Tawsi Melek is accorded divine powers, participating in the creation of the world and giving Adam his life or soul.  These self-described beliefs do indeed seem to fit the Islamic category of shirk, one mode of which is given by a prominent Islamic website as:
the belief that there is someone else who creates, gives life and death, reigns or controls the affairs of the universe along with Allaah.
An academic who studies them had this to say:

Since Yazidis are not a "people of the book," "they [are] not protected in Islamic law," Kreyenbroek pointed out. And "they [are] thought to be devil worshipers—and there is nothing as horrible and unclean as devil worshipers."
While the charge of worshipping the devil appears to be based on a misunderstanding, it would seem a reasonable and possible interpretation of their beliefs for a Muslim to categorise them as shirk-committing polytheists.  They do appear to assign to Tawsi Melek and other angels faculties that for Muslim monotheists are the sole preserve of God.

There are of course other reasonable interpretations of the status of Yezidis.  Even if they are not named as People of the Book in the Qur'an, like Christians, Jews and Sabians, who were accorded special privileges of freedom of worship in exchange for payment of the jizya tax to their Muslim rulers, they might be argued to be so on principle, in the same way that Muslim states afforded the privileges to Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, and others.  However, could not a Muslim argue that this historical practice is wrong?  They might argue, for instance, that only followers of Abrahamic religions with scriptures believed to be from God, albeit corrupted, qualify as People of the Book, or only those named faiths given in the Qur'an.

So it would seem the status of the Yazidis in Islamic thinking could be up for debate.  But if we are considering whether ISIS's mistreatment of them might be a viable version of Islamic practice, then I think we have to conclude that regarding them as polytheists seems reasonable.  It seems to be part of the range of positions that one might take without contradicting Islamic principles.

Now, is the way ISIS have been mistreating the Yazidis, by violence, enslavement, rape and forced conversion, a version or perversion of how polytheists are canonically to be treated?  This is again a matter of debate.  I can't think of a more admired Muslim scholar than Ibn Rushd (12th century).  In his book, The Distinguished Jurist's Primer, he explained the opinions of jurists of his time in the Maliki school.  Rather than investigate the whole, enormous sweep of Islamic jurisprudence, an impossibility for me, I will at least see what Ibn Rushd had to say about the opinions he took into consideration.  This will at least give us a 'quick-and-dirty' impression of the range of medieval opinion, and let us see whether ISIS's abuse of the Yazidis might fit into the tradition.

Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in Raphael's School of Athens

Ibn Rushd wrote that war was a collective obligation on Muslims agreed by a consensus of jurists.  Of war, he went on:
The jurists agreed, with respect to the people who are to be fought, that they are all of the polytheists, because of the words of The Exalted, "And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah" ...

Harm allowed to be inflicted on the enemy can be to property, life or personal liberty, that is enslavement and ownership.  Harm that amounts to enslavement is permitted by way of consensus (ijma) for all categories of the polytheists, I mean, their men and women, old and young, and the common people and the elite ...

There is, however, disagreement about execution after captivity...
Thus one of the leading medieval Islamic scholars opined that there was a consensus in his school about the obligation to fight polytheists, who might then according to some be slain in battle, or as all agreed be captured and enslaved.  Of course, there was a huge debate about the laws of war, with jurists disagreeing with each other, as explained in Misquoting Muhammad, about which verses abrogated which, whether sayings were meant as special or general commands, whether implications from Muhammad's actions were to be applied identically or analogically, etc., etc..  Ibn Rushd goes into it at length:
The reason leading to their disagreement [about who Muslims are allowed to kill], on the whole, arises from their dispute about the effective underlying cause of slaying. Thus, those who maintained that the effective underlying cause for this is disbelief, did not exempt anyone out of the polytheists, while those who maintained that the underlying cause in it is the ability to fight, there being a prohibition about the killing of women though they be non-believers, exempted those who do not have the ability to wage war, or those who have not affiliated themselves with it, like the peasants and the serfs.
There was also a debate about when Muslims should stop fighting polytheists (as well as People of the Book):
The reason for their disagreement stems from the conflict between the general and the specific implication. The general implication is in the words of the Exalted, "And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is all for Allah", and in the saying of the Prophet (God's peace and blessings be upon him), "I have been commanded to fight mankind until they say, 'There is no God but Allah', If they say this their lives and wealth are protected from me, unless there is another claim on them, and their reckoning is with Allah". The specific meaning is in the directive of the Prophet (God's peace and blessings be upon him) to the commanders of troops when he sent them to Arab polytheists Who, it is known, were not the People of the Book, "When you come to face your enemy, the polytheists, invite them to opt for three choices", and he mentioned jizya as one of them. The tradition has already been mentioned.
As so often, there is an ongoing debate about just which principle governs the situation, such as I only began to picture in my review of Misquoting Muhammad, and which I quote here only to illustrate the sort of welter of choices that any jurist has to make:
Those who maintained that if a general command comes after the specific command it abrogates it, said that jizya is not to be accepted from polytheists other than the People of the Book. The reason is that the verses containing general commands for fighting them are later in time than this tradition, because the command to fight the polytheists is general and it occurs in surat Barc Pa, which was (revealed in) the year of the conquest of Mecca, while the tradition is dated before the conquest on the evidence of the invitation to them to emigrate. Those who maintained that the general meaning is to be construed in terms of the specific, whether it is earlier or later or whether their being earlier or later with reference to each is not known, said that jizya is to be accepted from all the polytheists. With respect to the singling out of the People of the Book from all the polytheists, this exemption from the general meaning occurred, by agreement, in the the specific terms of the words of the Exalted, "Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah or the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by His Messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily being brought low".
Without delving into the debate, there was clearly a tradition of interpretation whereby polytheists could protect themselves from attack by converting to Islam.

As for women, ISIS has published a pamphlet asserting the right to have sex with a captured woman.  I can't find Ibn Rushd writing clearly on this point although he covers issues to do with marriage with slave women extensively in volume 2.

To sum up, I have discovered on a preliminary showing that the Yazidis might well be considered polytheists in Islamic thinking, and that there was a strong medieval tradition of obligatory war against polytheists, who were liable to death and enslavement, if they did not convert to Islam.  Of course, this is not the only interpretation of Islamic just-war theory.  On this as on so many other topics, there has been a volte-face in the consensus, or near-consensus, between medieval and modern times.  But the fact that the Islam of most Muslims has changed, does not mean that the old views were not nourished by real roots in the canon and tradition.  Furthermore, it does not seem to be much of an argument to accuse ISIS of being behind the times when they think of themselves as going back to the beginning.

Unless I am wrong, it seems impossible then to assert that what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis is a simple perversion of Islam.  They are certainly not acting in the way that the vast majority of Muslims wish to act.  Naturally the vast majority of Muslims reject ISIS's genocidal interpretation of their religion.  However, Islam is wide open to interpretation and debate.  There are traditions of tolerance and traditions of war and intolerance.  There seems to be clear evidence that ISIS are drawing on a well of medieval tradition, in regards to the case I have looked at here, and not inventing their Islam new out of whole cloth.

What ISIS seems to be doing is choosing the most hateful version of Islam that can possibly be derived from its sources.  They are likely doing so tendentiously and subjectively, using a pick-and-mix approach to extract the interpretations they wish.  However, that does not mean there is another Islam available that is more objective, less pick-and-mix.  If, as I tend to believe, Islam is wide open to interpretation, subject to a dazzling array of interpretative strategies and choices, then there can be no definitive version against which ISIS's interpretations can be contrasted as subjective and biased.  Modern liberal-democratic Islam is arguably just as subjective an interpretation.  It can take comfort in the earlier Muhammad of the Medinah period, who preached religious tolerance; but then extremists can take comfort that verses like the one about being "commanded to fight mankind until they say, 'There is no God but Allah'" were given later and arguably abrogate the former.  The arguments over interpretation are endless.

This is how I feel about Islam: it clearly has the moral power to inspire great works of kindness and tolerance in people who are open to these virtues, but these features are not solidly enough grounded in its canons to rule out the alternative interpretations which emphasise war and intolerance.  Islam is a matter of interpretation, and the field is too open to rule out of court as perversions all the versions that contradict the kind of Islam we humane and tolerant people want to see win out.  There is nothing astonishing in this: Islam shares this ambiguity with many other religions and political ideologies.  Communism was both a vision of fulfillment and equality, and a nightmare of terror and control.  Christianity inspired both Mother Teresa and the Crusades.  The sense of humanity and compassion that we have is a better guide to the moral life than any fixed doctrine, ancient or modern.

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