We are all distressingly familiar with debates over the nature of Islam. Is it a “religion of peace,” or is it a religion of war and conquest? Is it essentially repressive and militant, or are there traditions and movements within Islam that can effectively counter these tendencies? And even if it was once a bad actor, can Islam not undergo a transformation to bring it in line with modern views of freedom, tolerance, and mutual respect?
These debates raise another, more fundamental question: When can a religious system be blamed for the behavior of its adherents? Can we determine whether Islamic teaching itself is the cause of militant behavior and oppressive behavior committed by its adherents, or are their actions a distortion of its teachings? How do we speak conclusively about what Islam or any religion teaches or practices when there are controversies, schools of thought, and disagreements over the meaning and practices of that religion going back centuries?
To bring conceptual clarity to this debate, I propose the following: To determine what a religion teaches, and thus what we can expect at least a significant percentage of its adherents will do, the first step is to determine its source or sources of doctrinal and practical authority. Secondly, one determines whether a given doctrine or practice is a plausible, or legitimate interpretation based upon that authority. From the standpoint of public policy toward a given religion, especially regarding public safety and immigration (which is why we debate the meaning of Islam in the first place), the ability to predict whether adherents will likely act on a given doctrine should be the policy question regarding the “nature” or “essence” of a religion, not whether “all,” or even a majority hold to or practice it.
The significance of this distinction cannot be overemphasized. As Christians are well aware, it can be difficult to find specific doctrines or practices that all adherents of a world religion subscribe to unequivocally and without exception, and Islam is no different. However, to identify beliefs and practice on the basis of the received authority of that religion, and doctrines or practices held by a significant percentage of those identifying with a religion over time on the basis of that authority, is not especially problematic. The study of religions would be impossible without the ability to distinguish a range of beliefs and practices that are legitimately inferred from its source(s) of authority from those which may develop over time, but lack such authority.
What then are the sources of authority in Islam? Like Christianity, it has an authoritative revelation, the Qur’an, which was revealed by Allah to his prophet, Muhammad, and is itself eternal and unchanging. Its directives and teachings are thus binding on all Muslims. Again like Christianity, it has an authoritative founder, Muhammad. Among the vast majority of practicing Muslims, there is little or no question as to whether, if Muhammad commanded or engaged in a certain activity, a Muslim should follow it, since not just his revelations, but also his life, is divinely inspired (Q 33:21). So if it is certain that Muhammad engaged in an activity, it is morally permissible for a Muslim to engage in it. (One exception: Muhammad was allowed to have over 4 wives.)
Thus, for a given doctrine or practice associated with Islam, to determine whether it is legitimate or plausible to be believed or followed, one may apply a fairly straightforward test:
The Founding criterion: The doctrine or practice is taught in the Qur’an, or taught or practiced by Muhammad in the hadith, the “narratives” of Muhammad’s sayings and actions. Of the two, this one is clearly the more significant.
The Tradition criterion: The doctrine or practice has been taught or observed throughout the history of the religion, especially by its earliest adherents.
If we have the Founding criterion, why do we need the second, the Tradition criterion? It is certainly true that for many Muslims, the first will likely settle the issue. But the second is a potent clarification and reinforcement of the original revelation and actions of Muhammad. The knowledge that a specific practice has been followed since the time of Muhammad carries enormous persuasive force for any Muslim.
This approach to the question of what Islam teaches helps resolve a common mystery, and removes a common misunderstanding. The mystery is how a person who has been a “moderate” or nominal Muslim could become radicalized. Typically, we look for external factors, such as chronic unemployment, social alienation, or criminality. But in many cases, these factors appear to play a negligible role. Some of the major terrorist acts committed since 9/11 have involved Muslims who at one point were well-assimilated, attended high school and college, and were gainfully employed, such as Rizwan Farook (Orlando shooting), Nidal Hassan (Ft. Hood shooting), or the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing), as well as many of the 4,500 Muslims residing in Western countries who joined ISIS.1 Moreover, if non-religious, sociological factors were enough to drive a person to terrorism and militancy, why are there not more Buddhist or Mormon terrorists? Why are there no non-state Christian or Hindu armies conquering cities and beheading those who resist? However, if militancy is a legitimate or plausible interpretation of the Prophet’s teaching and practices, there is a perfectly good explanation as to why they behaved as they did: It is a legitimate interpretation of the founding and tradition of Islam.
A common misunderstanding, and indeed a highly dangerous one, is that we merely need to encourage Muslims to adopt a modern understanding of their religion, and the militancy will dissipate over time, just as it supposedly has with Christians, who once displayed the same barbaric tendencies.2 (This explanation was given to me by the academic dean of a major Texan university, viz., Christianity isn’t militant only because no one really believes it anymore.) But what is a “modern understanding”? Essentially, it is a recognition of an authority higher than the Founding – the scientific method, “reason,” “experience,” so-called Enlightenment values, or the deliverances of modern critical methods which would demonstrate that the Qur’an, like the Bible, is merely a human construct. But this is precisely the problem. A person’s religion is his ultimate source of knowledge, wisdom, and authority. The modern (really, postmodern) West is essentially asking Muslims to give up their religion in favor of its own. And a modern understanding conflicts not only with the Founding, but with the far deeper and longer, and thus more authoritative Tradition criterion.
Let us now turn to the question of Islamic “militancy,” which I will use as shorthand for military conquest in the name of Islam and the subjugation of non-believers.
The Founding criterion asks whether a given doctrine or practice is taught and practiced by the founder in the authoritative texts. The most frequently cited verse in the Qur’an supporting jihad, or holy war, is 9:29 “Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” But this is certainly not the only verse. There is also 9:5, “… fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) …”; and 47:4, “Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks, at length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them).” Conquest in the name of Islam is also supported throughout the hadith. For example, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘I have been ordered to fight the people till they say: ‘None has the right to be worshipped but Allah’. And if they say so, pray like our prayers, face our Qibla [prayer facing toward Mecca] and slaughter as we slaughter, then their blood and property will be sacred to us and we will not interfere with them except legally” (Sahih Bukhari 1:387). Notice the next citation combines both the Founding and the Tradition criteria: “When the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him… He would say: ‘Fight in the name of Allah and in the way of Allah. Fight against those who disbelieve in Allah. Make a holy war…'” (Sahih Muslim 4294).
The hadith confirm that Muhammad led armies, arguably in defense of his rule in Medina, and eventually conquered Mecca, his hometown. On his deathbed, Muhammad ordered the expulsion of Jews and Christians from Arabia, “Two faiths will not live together in the land of the Arabs.” He commanded all Muslims “to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah’.” He ordered the execution of captured opponents whom he considered traitors, most notably 600 Jews in Medina, and distributed women and children as slaves to his soldiers. We also know from Islamic history that the Rashidun, the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, as well as subsequent dynasties conquered vast territories in the name of Islam. Successive victories eventually included the conquest of the Levant, North Africa, the Byzantine Empire, and Spain. But for decisive losses at Tours (732) and Vienna (1683), Europe itself might have been conquered by the armies of the Prophet. Thus, by both the Founding and the Tradition criteria, militancy has been practiced from the beginning, and is perfectly legitimate for any Muslim to engage in. To do otherwise would be to reject the Prophet’s example, as well as to repudiate the first centuries of Islam’s history, beginning with the earliest adherents who knew him personally.
Should someone ask whether Christian doctrine and practice are compatible with militancy on the Founding criterion, and even on the Tradition criterion, things look markedly different. There are indeed historic instances of forced conversions (Charlemagne’s war against the Saxons), and religiously-motivated genocide (the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 during the first Crusade, as well as various incidents of so-called Christian mobs and armies committing genocide against Jewish communities). But there is nothing resembling this in the life or teachings of Jesus, nor in the lives or teachings of the Apostles as contained in the New Testament (the Founding criterion). None of them led armies. None advocated forced conversions. The use of coercive state power to enforce Christian doctrine would have to wait several hundred years to the time of Constantine.
Thus, even if it is debatable whether Islam itself is militant, depending, of course, on how it is defined, it is certainly not illegitimate or implausible to consider it such, and to raise serious questions as to whether it can ever be reformed.
1. For a much fuller treatment of this question, see Ibn Warraq, “The Root Cause Fallacy,” in The Islam in Islamism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, Kindle ed., (London: New English Review Press, 2017), loc. 532f.
2. Those defending the possibility of a moderate Islam would do well to study recent German analysis of this question. Ahmad Mansour, an “Arab Israeli” residing in Germany, explains in detail not only what it will require to prevent growing radicalization among Muslim youth, but also how it will require massive state intervention. See “Prävention und Deradikalisierung,” in Generation Allah: Warum wir im Kampf gegen religiösen Extremismus umdenken müssen, Kindle ed., (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 2015), loc. 2309-3130. Hamed Abdel-Samad, a former Muslim and son of an Egyptian Imam, believes that Islam “as a system” simply cannot be separated from its militant heritage (see Ist der Islam noch zu retten? (Munich: Droemer, 2017), p. 298. He now requires a bodyguard while traveling in Muslim neighborhoods in Berlin, a depressing irony.
Nicholas K. Meriwether is Professor of Philosophy at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.