How Medieval Islamic Theology Can Fight ISIS

Islam is distinct from many other faiths in having a very complex legalistic character, which among other things, provides a lot of leeway for adapting to the modern world, including the current challenges posed by globalization, pluralism, and modernity.

One of example of this tradition is the ancient yet surprisingly progressive concept of irja, which, as explained by Mustafa Aykol in an excellent New York Times piece, offers a valuable counter to the regressive and viciously intolerant dogma of Islamic State (emphasis mine).

Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing”. It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate”. Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.

The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia”, the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers”. The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism.

So contrary to popular belief, Islam has the potential to be a tolerant and pluralistic belief, even if it ultimately — like Judaism and Christianity — proposes an exclusivist ideology. Mainstream Muslims can draw from a deep tradition of theological compromise and pragmatism to combat the bloodthirsty expansionism and sectarianism of extremists.

And while irja sadly did not survive the tumultuous early years of Islam, its legacy remains in practice, if not explicitly.

…There are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion”. Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones … who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality”. They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins”.

It is no surprise that fanatical ideologues like I.S. would be steadfastly opposed to irja. But as Aykol rightly concludes, the group and its allies will have a tougher time making their case if more and more of their fellow Muslims step up to reclaim the label and, more importantly, put it into practice.

I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.

Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.

If any good can come from Islamic State’s bloody and disruptive emergence, it is the possibility that the group’s unleashing of Islam’s darkest elements will compel more Muslims to do some soul searching and tap into the understated wellspring of tolerant and pluralistic values. Just as the wars of religion within Christianity eventually led to a softening of Christian dogma and an emergence of more progressive strains of the faith, so, too, could Islam hopefully benefit from a similar and legitimate path towards progress — hopefully at less cost along the way.

What are your thoughts?

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