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Is ISIS Really Muslim?

This article was first published in the March print edition of Christianity Today.

Is ISIS Really Muslim

For Egyptian Christians, 2017 was the deadliest modern year on record. At least 87 were killed by terrorists.

But despite being labeled by ISIS as its “favorite prey,” Copts were only 12 percent of such fatalities last year. Far more Muslims died in extremist violence at the hand of fellow believers.

Unless they aren’t believers at all.

If American Christians often don’t know how to understand Islam, they can take some comfort knowing that Egyptian Muslims struggle too.

A tragic case study occurred in December, when more than 300 people were killed at a Sinai mosque belonging to a Sufi order. Sufi Muslims are known for their mystical practices in search of spiritual communion with God. Many also seek intercession at the graves of Muslim saints.

In casual but solemn conversation at an upper-class organization in Cairo, one well-educated Egyptian woman reflected on the tragedy with colleagues. “Yes, but they are Sufis,” she said. “They’re not really Muslims.”

The woman was not making light of the massacre, nor justifying it. But she had internalized a message preached by another type of Muslim—Salafis—who judge Sufi practices to be outside the bounds of orthodox Islam. And when Salafis become jihadists, they may well kill Sufis as apostates.

In angry conversation with a middle-class taxi driver in Cairo, one typical Egyptian denounced ISIS for its crimes against both mosques and churches. “No, we can’t say that they aren’t Muslims,” he said. “Of course they are.”

What causes such confusion? Innocent victims, praying in a mosque, are placed outside of Islam while murderers, salivating at the entrance, remain in the faith?

At issue is a pernicious concept in the Muslim world called takfir in Arabic. It means the process of calling someone a kafir—an infidel…

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Categories
Religion

Secondary Separation, in Islam

Secondary Separation Islam

In fundamentalist Christian circles there is an approach to the world known as ‘secondary separation’. While the Bible notes Christians are not of this world, there is tension when Jesus says they are also in this world, and should not expect to be removed.

Fundamentalism is one expression of this tension, that leans in the direction of withdrawal. A key verse is II Corinthians 6:17, “Come out from them and be separate,” quoting an Old Testament passage focusing on holiness.

Separation from the world is therefore a necessary Christian posture, though defining ‘them’ and ‘separate’ can be difficult. Fundamentalists take it a step further, saying that ‘them’ includes also those Christians who do not separate sufficiently.

This is secondary separation, and it has been most famously applied against Billy Graham. The renowned evangelist has been celebrated by most Christians for his gospel fidelity and salvation message.

But it that ‘most’ that offends this fundamentalist spirit. His crusades have cooperated with too many insufficiently fundamentalist churches, which they believe compromises the call to be separate.

In partnering with those who are not theologically pure, he risks endorsing their relative liberalism.

It is interesting to note a similar approach exists in Islam.

The posture of takfir is the process of declaring someone a kafir, an infidel. Longstanding Islamic jurisprudence says this should almost never be done to a Muslim, unless he or she openly renounces their faith.

But there is a verse in the Quran that provides Muslim fundamentalists, if the term is appropriate, a powerful retort. Sura 5:44 says, “And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed, then it is those who are the disbelievers,” using the plural of the Arabic word kafir at the end.

This verse has been applied by Muslim insurrectionists throughout the ages against their Muslim rulers who they accuse of not properly implementing sharia.

Certainly Muslims also struggle with the tension of their texts, and they are invited to provide proper interpretation.

But leave it to ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, to take it a step further.

Should it be necessary: There is little similarity between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists. But a devotion to God and a commitment to his way may sometimes prompt an antagonistic stance not only to the world, but also to fellow believers.

And from an article in Jihadica, “The Caliphate in Disarray,” there is also a similarity in secondary takfir.

Turki al-Bin’ali, the self-proclaimed ‘Grand Mufti,’ or chief cleric, of ISIS, was killed several months ago in a US airstrike. His death set off a wave of eulogies, but also counter-eulogies and accusations. Some even speculated his location was tipped off to the enemy that he be eliminated as leader.

Takfir is one of the issues that divides ISIS and al-Qaeda, with the latter being slightly more reticent to call non-affiliated Muslims non-believers. It is a sensible position if you are trying to recruit, not to limit your pool of applicants.

Then again, the number willing to die in their cause is considerably limited by their viciousness. Perhaps then it is best to recruit only the purest of the pure. But as seen with Christian fundamentalists, purity is easily nitpicked.

As a result: theological division among those who believe they have already most dedicated to God’s path through jihad.

Al-Bin’ali’s nemesis on this issue, the Meccan-born Ahmad ibn ‘Umar al-Hazimi, preached a rigorous approach to takfir. The following excerpt may be challenging in its Arabic references, but careful reading will establish a clear similarity with secondary separation:

In his lectures, he [al-Hazimi] espoused a controversial doctrine known as takfir al-‘adhir, or “the excommunication of the excuser.”

The notion of takfir al-‘adhir is derived from two concepts in Wahhabi theology. The first is the requirement of takfir; the second is the inadmissibility of al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, or “excusing on the basis of ignorance.”

According to the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), it is incumbent upon all true believers to excommunicate—that is, to make takfir of—those deemed unbelievers, as well as to excommunicate those who fail to excommunicate them.

As Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab stated—and this is the line around which the Hazimi-Bin‘ali debate revolves—“Whoso fails to make takfir of the polytheists, or has doubts concerning their unbelief, or deems their doctrine to be sound, has [himself] disbelieved.”

The duty of takfir is generally accepted in Jihadi Salafism, but there is some debate over al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl, that is, over whether ignorance may serve as a legitimate excuse for holding errant beliefs, and so shield one from the charge of takfir.

For al-Hazimi, who follows the traditional Wahhabi view, al-‘udhr bi’l-jahl is categorically invalid, meaning that the ignorant heretic is to be declared an unbeliever.

Moreover, as he says, anyone who regards ignorance as an excuse for the heretic’s unbelief is also to be declared an unbeliever. Hence the idea of “the excommunication of the excuser.”

Perhaps in truth this is a tertiary takfir, with standard Wahhabism being the secondary. But herein is the problem: Once you start judging a fellow believer’s faith, where does the cycle stop?

Fortunately for Christian fundamentalists, it does not continue to the bombing of a Billy Graham crusade. But there is many a former fundamentalist who has become jaded when he or those he respected found themselves on the wrong side of a Christian fatwa. Sometimes it moves them to a more nebulous evangelicalism; sometimes they leave the faith entirely.

But they are not killed. ISIS, while flip-flopping repeatedly on the issue, did not hesitate to execute proponents of the at-the-time-minority outlook. Others died in airstrikes under what is described as ‘murky circumstances’. The article features more of the back-and-forth diatribe, which revealed also a discontent in ISIS over corruption, dishonesty, unfulfilled prophecies, and the loss of territory.

All the above is a reminder that the tension in religious faith is not only maddening for the sincere believer, but necessary. If God said both this and that, both are true no matter the apparent inconsistency or challenge of application.

It is easy to side with that (or this) most congenial to personal temperament, but mature faith must grapple with both and live accordingly.

In the world, but not of it. Judge by God’s sharia, but don’t judge. The challenge applies to more than we might at first imagine.

My article was first published at Patheos.