Speed Reads

History Lesson

ISIS is scared of a medieval strain of Islamic thought. One Muslim proposes exploiting that.

The Islamic State's "religious ideology needs to be taken seriously," says Mustafa Akyol at The New York Times. ISIS's thinking doesn't represent mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes often claim, nor does ISIS have "'nothing to do with Islam,' as many Islamophobia-wary Muslims like to say," Akyol writes. But if Islam is a recruitment and ideological tool for ISIS, why not use Islamic theology to battle it? He pointed to an 18-page article in the March issue of ISIS's English-language magazine, Dabiq, titled "'Irja': The Most Dangerous Bid'ah," or heresy. Akyol provides some background:

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.... 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. [Akyol, The New York Times]

This strain of Islamic theology "could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism," but instead it all but disappeared, Akyol said. At least in name. In practice, he said, "there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term." ISIS calls these Muslims heretics, he argues, but irja is actually "true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men," and likeminded Muslims need to "join me in wearing the irja badge with price — and revised 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." You can read Akyol's lesson and plea at The New York Times.