The lack of an authoritative source, other than the texts, makes pretty much anyone a specialist on Islam, and at the very same time an ignorant fool. Don’t worry, the irony of me presenting a breakdown of Islam isn’t lost on me. Islam is a crazy world. Welcome to it. No. really, you’re welcome to it.
A question put to me has finally prompted me to write this post, because the inevitable demand for a ‘brief’ explanation of my view simply cannot be met:
On the one hand you say you understand the difference between Islam and Islamism. On the other you speak about “Islam” as if it is a violent ideology that compels its followers to violence — as if there is no difference between Islamism and Islam. I’m confused.
What follows is a convenient reference. It’s a simplistic breakdown of Islam from my point of view.
The Basics – The Sources
Islam is the political religious system as defined by the Quran and other texts, such as the Hadith (traditions and sayings of Mohammed) and the Sira (biographies of Mohammed). Although Allah is the Islamic god, clearly Mohammed is relied upon to be the source of his message, explicitly in the Quran, or by his example in the Hadith. That makes Mohammed pretty much everything. He was and is the authority, as presented in the texts.
There is now no central human authority for Islam, so really, it’s down to the texts. Unfortunately many Muslim sub-groups feel they have the authority to tell you and other Muslims which Muslims are not proper Muslims or not Muslims at all. So a key experience you will have talking to Muslims is that if you agree with them, you’ve got it right, but if you don’t you’re just plain ignorant or you’re not using the right source or the right scholarly interpretation of a source.
However, even in that context you’ll pick up messages like these, depending on who you listen to:
- The Quran is inerrant and valid for all time.
- The Quran is so perfect it’s easy for anyone to understand.
- The Quran needs scholarly interpretation (you see the contradictions already).
- All Muslims are united under Islam …
- … Except **those** Muslims, because they are not proper Muslims (there are many contradictions)
- The Quran and Hadith define what it is to be a Muslim.
- Only the Quran defines what it is to be a Muslim.
- These Hadith are valid, but these Hadith are not.
- … you get the picture.
Who is a Muslim?
A Muslim is anyone claiming to be an adherent of Islam who behaves according to at least some aspects of the texts. This is the base level we have to work with.
However, it’s not for you or I, the non-Muslims, to decide who is and is not a Muslim. Obviously as a non-Muslim I’m taking liberties here by giving my opinion.
But hold on, it seems that it is all well and good for Muslims to say what they think atheism is, how evil it is, how bad the Jews are, or are not – Muslims aren’t shy when it comes to giving their opinions on non-Muslims. Even Mohammed (though his Quran) has lots to say about unbelievers, so why should unbelievers not have opinions about Islam, as they witness it, in the texts and in the words and deeds of Muslims – all of them. This is how I see it.
Unfortunately it appears it’s not for the self-declared Muslim to decide whether he’s a Muslim or not either, if sufficient other Muslims declare he is not a Muslim. Welcome to Takfir and other methods of denunciation and apostation.
Takfir – Denouncing other Muslims as being so un-Islamic that one can say they have effectively apostatised themselves, so they are now non-Muslims. And some Muslims, a disturbing number according to Pew polls, think that those apostates deserve death. Fancy that – you think you’re a Muslim, only to be told, “No you’re not, you’re an apostate and deserve death!” That’s a fine prospect to wake up to. Welcome to Islam.
Takfir even has another trick up its sleeve, if you have had Takfir used against you: if you can muster the power base, you can turn Takfir onto your accusers, declare that they declared Takfir on you unjustly; and that then instantly makes them the apostates. Bingo!
Does Takfir remind you of a Harry Potter spell contest? Or maybe a MMA reversal move?
Once again I must say this is a simplification. It has to be, because the reality is too complex to cover completely. I’ll add caveats.
Some of these categories have been defined and re-defined by others. For example, Maajid Nawaz has most recently taken to defining a distinction between Islam and Islamism. I can understand his motive, and I support his endeavour as a reformist. But I’m afraid critics of Islam, and many Muslims, see through this over simplification. This is why something as long as this post is needed to even get close to answering the question regarding Islam and Islamism that prompted it.
Muslims I see in these categories might not see themselves being in those categories. They each may see themselves following Islam, while seeing some or all or the others as not doing so.
But one thing is clear. This is Islam. Islam is the super-set that contains these subsets. Here’s an example (this is a set diagram – don’t take it to represent numbers):
Treating just nice Muslims as representatives of Islam, and bad people acting in the name of Islam as Islamist non-Muslims. It’s way more complicated than that.
But that’s why the dichotomy Islam/Islamism fails – it is used, especially by non-Muslim apologists, to denouce critics of Islam as bigoted haters of all Muslims.
So, on to the breakdown …
1 – Islamic extremism/terrorism
Violent Islamic extremists try to implement the demands of Islam by interpreting the texts explicitly.
- With regard to performing expansive Jihad, not just the spiritual Jihad
- In the treatment of perceived enemies of Islam – all non-Muslims that do not submit to Islam, and even Muslims if they are ‘traitors’ to Islam.
- When avenging blasphemous slights against Islam, the prophet or Allah.
The goal is either for a world Caliphate, or a Caliphate for part of the world – this detail seems to depend on the ambitions of groups and individuals.
ISIS, Boko Haram, …
2 – Islamism
Expanding Islam by non-violent means. In democracies it’s using democracy against itself to achieve power so that Sharia can be implemented as the law of the land.
This is a subversive political agenda. That other useful Islamic methodology, Taqiyya, encourages Muslims to be deceitful if it helps the cause.
Maajid Nawaz’s old group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, is typical, but perhaps the most prominent is the Muslim Brotherhood.
A problem in declaring groups as Jihadist, terrorist, Islamist, is that there is often cross-over, common membership, cross funding, common external funding, …, and of course secrecy. The face of any apparently benign Islamic organisation could be a mask for an Islamist one; or a genuinely benign organisation might be infiltrated by Islamists. It all gets very messy.
Wheels within wheels.
3 – Fundamentalist/Conservative Islam
This starts to become trickier still. This is where Islam is taken very seriously, and piety abounds.
Unfortunately this isn’t as authoritative as it sounds. You’d think really pious Muslims would be able to tell us anything we want to know about Islam. But there are a lot of flakes out there spouting crazy stuff (putting to one side my general opinion of Islam and other religions and their crazy stuff).
It’s easy to be fooled, as I’m sure many uneducated Muslims living in sparse lands with a local preacher are; or as identity conflicted poorly educated lads in Yorkshire are when they meet a charismatic explainer of true Islam.
When it comes to the perceived credibility of these people it’s a mess. A source could be the scholarly specialist wise old imam; or the local pompous Mo who decided to take it upon himself to be a specialist in Islam (yes, I still get the irony of this post). There are so many claims and counter claims to credibility that there ends up being no credibility at all that’s worth a spit.
Anyway, for this category, think really, really pious.
Now, here’s a problem. While they might seem to focus on religion, don’t be fooled. Islam is a political, judicial and theological system. It’s more than likely you’ll find a mix of people, some who are really all about peace and love, and others that are hell and damnation. And you might find that even the peace and love guys will conclude that, sadly, apostates and blasphemers, as much as we love them, deserve death – not because they wish it, but because Allah demands it.
Of course, being good Muslims, ISIS love all people, even gays, and so will want to cure them. And when they have cured them, then they can toss them off a building, because Allah requires that punishment, not them. ISIS can be seen to spout the same BS as many a pious preacher or scholar.
4 – Ordinary/Moderate Islam
Warning: To an extremist anyone just a little less extreme looks like a moderate. Islam is a conservative religion, so ‘moderate’ does not map onto middle of the road liberal. A liberal Muslim is way out there on the left, to more conservative Muslims, and is usually considered extreme, and even non-Muslim.
It seems a wide range of Muslims consider themselves to be moderate Muslims. Well, don’t we all see our position as moderate?
Ordinary Muslims go about their daily business, are respectful to the elderly, pray, observe the observances, and generally get along with everyone.
Here’s the trickiness of Islam again. The devil is in the details.
This is where many really nice Muslims are – the Muslims that get along with non-Muslims (though given the teachings of Islam this might vary from genuine to pretend friendship). And still, they may or may not approve of death for apostasy, blasphemy, adultery.
5 – Reformed/Liberal Islam
This is where the future of Islam lives happily with the non-Islamic world. A personal religion. That doesn’t exclude prosthelytising, but it’s not in your face. They don’t want an Islamic Caliphate.
Features include the rejection of two key elements of Islam: the inerrancy of the Quran; putting Islam before all else.
Reformists don’t necessarily want to change the historic texts of the Quran, they just want to avoid adhering to it quite so closely – pretty much as most Christians tend not to do so with their Bible. This is a big problem for most other Muslims. That’s why reformers are denounced so intensely.
All the modern reformists I’ve come across seem to subscribe to secular liberal democratic values, and want to be free in a secular system to follow their religion. They seem most like Humanists, except they also happen to follow Islam.
6 – Cultural-Islam
There’s little interest in the religion here. These are your Muslim mates that like a drink, live a western lifestyle in western countries, hold down jobs without being noticeably ‘Muslim’. But perhaps their family is still Muslim, and they are pretty much emotionally blackmailed into following the rules at home, observing the observances.
Or, maybe their parents are liberal and respect how their kids live their lives. They may be lectured on their lack of strict observance and declared to be poor Muslims by family and community – lost sheep. But they aren’t causing too much trouble, so, they get away with a lot.
It seems some Muslims live double lives, hiding their western ways from their community. Of course the double life is a necessity in Islamic states where you might expect anything from imprisonment to death for being too un-Islamic.
7 – Ex-Muslim
Right, so this isn’t Islam. I’m including it for one reason – the authority to speak on Islam.
I don’t agree with the notion that non-Muslims can’t have a valid opinion on Islam – particularly when it comes to me. All that’s required is that you listen to Muslims and do some research. At least read the Quran for yourself.
But what really gets my goat is the way ex-Muslims are dismissed by Muslims and the regressive left non-Muslims.
Ex-Muslims are often ex-Muslims because they have lived as Muslims and found fault with it. They might not like the theology – they become Christians, or even atheists. They might have converted to another religion, because they found that better, or because they found Islam to be so bad.
But they have usually lived, and often suffered, under Islam, and they want out.
This is a big risk for them, as apostates, declaring themselves to be ex-Muslim, especially if they still live in a strongly conservative community. Sometimes their ex-Muslim persona can be expressed only anonymously online. If they are gay the danger is raised a few degrees. A lot depends on where they live – in order of increased risk: free of Islamic ties in a liberal country; in a liberal Islamic community in a liberal coutnry; in a pious community; in an Islamic state.
That there are ex-Muslims that live with such dangers makes a fucking mockery of the dishonest bullshit we get from regressives that whine on about how I’m demonising Islam and Muslims.
Too right I’m anti-Islam, but not only for my own sake, but for these many brave people that have the balls to say they are no longer Muslims.
And I haven’t even gotten around to the misogyny of Islam and the brutal treatment of women, the honour killings, the forced bagging less some man gets horny at the sight of them, the stoning to death of female adulterers, … crikey, how can non-Muslim regressives not be more vocal against this stuff instead of making excuses for Islam.
8 – Muslims that Are Not Muslims
I decided to add this just to show how bad Islam is. I’d forgotten that Ahmadiyya Muslims are banned by the constitution of Pakistan from referring to themselves as Muslims, and was reminded today by a BBC article on the misfortune of Asad Shah, the Ahmadi Muslim stabbed to death in Glasgow, by another Muslim (a ‘proper’ Muslim in this case), Tanveer Ahmed, from Bradford. Ahmed had driven up to Glasgow especially to kill Shah, it seems, for blasphemy (Initial reports linked the killing to Shah’s good wishes message to Christians at Easter).
The Ahmadiyya faith seems to be pretty tolerant of other faiths, more so than ‘regular’ Muslims; are supposed to be the only sect that accepts separation of mosque and state (well, there are the reformists that do too, but they’re not a sect as such); and reject the spread of Islam by violent Jihad.
[Note to US foreign policy blamers – the ‘prophet’ Ahmad started this sect and was busy rejecting Jihad by the sword back at the end of the 19th century – so presumably there was a notion of Jihad by the sword for him to reject.]
Anyway, latest is that Ahmed killed Sha for ‘disrespecting Islam’, by ‘claiming to be a prophet’? Not sure Ahmed got that right, but he believed he was right. Beliefs cause acts.
It should be easy to find fault with my breakdown.
Caveat 1 – There may be many more categories to add.
Caveat 2 – There may be alternative categorisations, such as by sect: Sunni, Shia, Ahmadi, …
Caveat 3 – A particular Muslim could be considered to be a member of more than one category because their Islam is a mix of the features of each – and the categories are simplifications, after all.
Caeveat 4 – A particular Muslim might seem to fit clearly into one category, and may even agree they do – and yet they may have one or more specific beliefs that seem to sit better in another category. He might be moderate, and yet agree that ISIS are right in throwing gays of buildings. He might be an Islamist, wanting a global Caliphate achieved by peaceful means, yet might demand harsh punishment far less often than a moderate might. Islam isn’t easy. Fantasy worlds are hard to tie down to the real world.
Listen To Muslims – Oh, Not Those Muslims
I’m often told I should consult Muslims. I do. They tell me Islam is as I’ve described it. They don’t each say this breakdown I’ve presented is how they see it. They tell me what they think is their Islam and what is not Islamic. From that I see Muslims falling into these categories. Some of it doesn’t come from direct dialogue, but from statements, videos, books, where Muslims tell us what Islam is to them. The extremists are, thankfully, too distant and too risky to engage with. But, in addition to information from some researchers and ex-extremists, their messages about what they believe are available to everyone, and to me no less than some regressive apologist for Islam.
Of course, the regressive non-Muslims enjoy applying their own special brand of Takfir here, for example when offered reformist Muslims – they are not ‘authentic’.
And this is part of the problem. It’s so tempting to look to the Muslims you know or have met and say, well, they’re really nice, isn’t it obvious most Muslims are like that, just ordinary people?
But look at the variety of people that are turned to harsher forms of Islam, or even to ISIS and the like. This variety has persuaded many non-Muslim commenters, and Muslims, to wonder how all these people are driven to ISIS:
- Uneducated victims of local racism
- Doctors and engineers
- British Pakistanis
- US Muslims from a liberal background
Their conclusion is that it must be something else that’s doing it, not Islam. Look at all the ‘ordinary/moderate’ Muslims, how come they are not persuaded to violent Jihad?
American foreign policy?
The invasion of ‘Muslim lands’?
Note that last excuse for not seeing Islam as a problem. A British Pakistani joins Arab group ISIS, because non-Muslims have invaded ‘Muslim lands’. And he goes there and does the stuff the texts of Islam tell him to do. How can you conclude that Islam isn’t the problem? If a British Pakistani wasn’t also a Muslim he would have no affiliation with Muslims in ISIS.
Ah, but ISIS kill other Muslims, not only Yazidis. What of that?
Well, yes, that’s very Islamic. Dealing with people that are not following Islam as they should? Dealing with traitors to Islam? Takfir? This is an Islamic mechanism for dealing with what they perceive to be Islamic failures. This is consistent with ISIS being Islamic more than it is consistent with other excuses for the problem of Islam not being about Islam.
Islamic extremism was extreme up-front, with Mohammed. Islam arose. Nobody invaded ‘Muslim lands’. Muslims went out and invaded other lands and made them Muslims lands.
Has western foreign policy in the middle east made matters worse, allowed ISIS space to form and grow? Sure. But Islam had to have the features and the example of Mohammed ready and waiting to use.
If I walk into a prison and release some murderers and they go out and murder, I am at great fault. I am the cause of their release. But that does not make them non-murderers. When the US screwed up in Iraq, left it unstable, and allowed an Islamic insurgency to develop, that was a clear fault of the US. But that does not make ISIS un-Islamic. They are very Islamic. ISIS are as much Islam as any moderate.
The Measure of Islam and Literalism
A common objection to criticism of Islam is that we the critics take the texts too literally.
Look at this scale.
Reformed Islam is that which rejects much of the literal interpretation of Islam – far more rejections than most other Muslims would allow, such that reformists are denounced by most other Muslims.
Extremists are known for taking the literal interpretation seriously, particularly when it comes to the violent stuff.
Conservative Muslims may use lots of scholarship to contextualise the texts, but they are not known for rejecting any of it – they still think death for apostasy and blasphemy, stoning of adulterers, is the right punishment, even if they are prepared to mince words to avoid doing it too regularly.
Many ordinary/moderate Muslims are decent people caught in the trap of Islam – they are required to endorse the texts, because the Quran is inerrant and the Mohammed was a perfect role model.
The cognitive dissonance kicks in. While they may be really peaceful loving people, push them into a corner and you might find they do, maybe reluctantly, endorse the bad stuff – in context of course (“All in he best possible taste!” – Kenny Everett).
When you pin Muslims down on aspects of Islam that are inconveniently barbaric they are more likely to evade the questions and defer to scholars and imams.
But what if the scholars and imams say, yes, death for apostasy? Does our ‘ordinary’ Muslim pretend they never said it? Do they find another scholar or imam? One that can employ even more obscure scholarship to explain away the difficulties?
They can twist and turn all they like, but violence and hatred is in the Quran. Read it.
I’m all for Muslims being peaceful. I’m all for Islam being the religion of peace. It simply isn’t.
Ordinary Muslims of peace are pretending it is. And sadly they are denouncing the reformist Muslims that are more honest about their religion, its texts and its history.
Islamic reformers deserve our support. Moderate Muslims should be encouraged to listen to them.
What’s that? Muslims won’t listen to me? It has to come from Muslims?
Sorry, I will tell any Muslim I can get to listen. This is how I see Islam, the whole picture, warts and all. Burying one’s head in the sand and hoping nasty ISIS will fade away doesn’t cut it. Being so sensitive to Muslim sensibilities that you won’t speak out about how Islam endangers us all, but more so many Muslims, also won’t cut it.
Update: If you think my perception of Islam isn’t accurate enough, try this: what some Shiite Muslims think Sunni Muslims think of Shiite Muslims:
It seems the people with the least clue about what Islam is are Muslims, and the regressive apologists. The rest of us have a pretty good idea what it is.