Twitter dwellers were treated recently to a YouTube video of ISIS virtue and vice inspectors (“Hisba”) roaming the streets of areas under their control in Syria, lecturing shop owners about mannequins and Friday prayers, preaching morality the way they understand it, and then bulldozing Shia shrines.
The ISIS Hisba crew did that while quoting verses from the Qur’an and hadiths, projecting an image they believe to be righteous and virtuous. The masked fear on the faces of some shop owners was inescapable, and the deserted stands in the market—described as a sign of citizens obeying alleged Islamic rules by going to prayer instead of selling products — unintentionally conjured up images of poor sellers being forced to abandon their source of livelihood to pray at the altar of the new rulers. Of course nowhere in the video are we told of the fate of those citizens who violate the new rules, except that they are referred to some court.
Interestingly (though not surprisingly), the narrative ISIS was advancing there was not about saving people from the oppression of the Assad regime. No. It was about combatting alleged idolaters and polytheists, and the ones who worship and pray at shrines—the likes of the “Rafidah” (the Shias). It was about putting Sunnis on the right path by decapitating mannequins lest they become idols and demolishing any grave that is not level with the ground. ISIS has taken it upon itself to spread its own version of Islamic enlightenment.
The conviction with which ISIS members act is striking. Underneath it all is a fundamental misuse of the very religion they preach, and an inability to understand religious texts as products of their time. The contextual vacuum in which they and unfortunately many other Muslims place the Qur’an underlies this behavior. As with many other Muslims, they were instructed to view the Qur’an outside its historical context. But unlike many Muslims living peacefully, they were also injected with the fundamentalist venom.
A critical reading of the Qur’an reveals what they missed. Like other religious texts, many of the Qur’an’s verses were directed at fence sitters and at the enemies of the new religion at the time. In other words: it spoke to the people of a particular time. It tried to find common ground with Jews and Christians, but also self-define as a distinct new religion. This explains why the Baqarah Sura, for example, contains so many snippets that are rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions, inheriting and progressing the narrative by making room for the latest Abrahamic faith, and justifying its existence by drawing on perceived transgressions of the past, and offering solutions for the predicament of the time.
This is sadly lost on many Muslims, moderates and extremists, who were raised to view the entirety of the Qur’an as a prescriptive text outside time and space, despite evidence to the contrary. Never mind that many so-called modern Islamic societies have failed to adopt and sustain good and prosperous lifestyles solely based on restrictive interpretations of the religion. Even at its peak, the Islamic civilization in its various branches produced advances and innovations in the arts and sciences that would not have been possible had they strictly followed the ways of ISIS or al-Qaeda. ISIS followers cannot boast that Islam is the religion of development and enlightenment and concurrently project an image befitting the worshippers of darkness and ignorance.
Contrary to what some ISIS followers believe, Islam was never a monolithic body of texts and traditions, out of which deviants branched out. While it could have originated against a backdrop of polytheism, it took its distinct forms as a result of interactions between the desert Arabs and the Christians and Jews who inhabited the regions Arabs invaded and who lent the conquerors religious and cultural concepts little known to desert dwellers. As hard as this might be to accept by some, you see that influence in everything from Islamic art to religious and legal texts. Believing that it all came at once to one mortal man, who then uttered enough quotes and provided enough supporting behavior to make up an entire body of Islamic law is neither logical nor historically accurate. In fact, there are those who contend that Islamic law came first, followed by the Traditions or Hadiths. Regardless, the rulers and scholars of the new conquered territories came up with much of what makes Islam what it is today, including the various Traditions. In other words, Islam was not born in the full light of history. It was not born in its current shape and form, with prescriptions to wage wars and stand in the face of cultural evolution. It evolved from contemporaneous cultural and religious ingredients. There is no such thing as “mainstream” Islam, from which sects branched out. All the sects we see today came about as different followers of the new religion struggled to find meaning and rules that best suited their interests and the interests of the forces that nurtured and nourished them, or that persecuted them.
Understanding that is key towards allowing the religion to remain suited to this world and allowing Muslims to flourish in their own societies.
Our world, whether we like it or not, has evolved into a world where we have treaties, international laws and relations, and nation states built on principles that many human beings have come to appreciate. Islamist groups cannot view the world through the lens of the Middle Ages. Neither can these groups appoint themselves guardians of any people from any sect, claiming to act as their defenders as a pretext to impose illegitimate interpretations of what it means to be Muslim.
For that, an ISIS member has no business telling anyone, Muslim or otherwise, how to live. They can’t declare themselves prophets or messengers, claiming knowledge of matters that are strictly between the soul and its lord.