Ah yes, the real Islam – what might that be? Would we recognise it if we found it, and does it even exist?
Few of us would have thought it worth our while to enquire except for the fact that the followers of some versions of Islam have taken to blowing us up and chopping our heads off, quoting suspiciously plausible verses of the Koran as justification. Not only that but our leaders routinely tell us that jihadist groups have nothing to do with the real Islam. Can it really be the case that they are in a position to tell unreal Islam from real Islam? They never spell out what the real Islam is beyond platitudes such as “a great salvation religion” or “a great historic faith which has brought spiritual nourishment to millions”. Perhaps they are just making it up.
Here is a selection of views on the subject taken from a trawl round the internet:
“Anyone who knows the real Islam knows that Islam is love.”
“Islam is a collective psychosis seeking to become global, and any attempt to compromise with such madness is to become part of the madness itself.”
“Islam is as diverse as Muslims themselves”.
“True Islam (Submission) is like a precious jewel that is buried under piles of man-made innovations and social traditions that have little to do with the religion.”
“[Islam is] an impious, blasphemous, vicious cult, an invention of the devil, and the direct way into the fires of hell. It does not even merit the name of being called a religion.”
“Islam is not simply a religion. Islam is a socio-political system. It is a socio-political, socio-religious, socio-economic, socio-educational, socio-judicial, legislative, militaristic system cloaked in, garbed in religious terminology.”
“Islam – not so much a religion, more a personality disorder.”
“I start from the principle that Islam is what Muslims say it is”.
“There is no “true Islam” in Islam. There has never been any central “authority” in Islam that could define such a thing.”
What do other interested parties tell us?
Let us dispose of the silliness first. There is a strain of thought among academics called non-essentialism. Its adherents would have us believe that Islam, like everything else, has no essence therefore Islam can be whatever you like. This is because non-essentialism means that “for any given kind of entity, there are no specific traits which entities of that kind must possess”. It has been said that non-essentialism is itself an essentialist position but I’ll leave that one to you – it hurt my head. I’ll just suggest that it is one of those ideas which are so ridiculous that only intellectuals could entertain them.
That is not to say that the usual deceptive apologists do not recognise a useful button when they see one. Mehdi Hasan says “Where is the book of Sharia law? It doesn’t exist. People argue over what Sharia law is.” This is merely the usual Mehdi sleight of hand. There is such a thing as Sharia law and although there are differing interpretations there is in fact a great degree of uniformity between the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence. The major variations we see around the world come largely from the differing amount of sharia adopted by different countries.
His transatlantic counterpart Reza Aslan tells us that “All religions are infinitely malleable”. They certainly are finitely malleable around the edges but if there is ever an Islam in which Allah is regarded as part of a trinity then surely it is Islam no more. Reza should try dropping into his local mosque and suggesting it.
Closely related is the view of one CofE participant in the interfaith dialogue charade :
“I start from the principle that Islam is what Muslims say it is”
This prompts the obvious question “Which Muslims?” Are we to give more credence to the Muslims of ISIS or Al-Azhar or Quilliam or to Ibn Kathir or Caliph Ali or the wild-eyed dawah man on the High Street every Saturday? If you are not willing to distinguish between authentic or inauthentic versions then the logical conclusion must be that there are 1.6 billion Islams and therefore none.
Those most seriously concerned with the question of course are Muslims themselves, ever mindful of hellfire. A hadith attributed to Abu Dawood recalls Mohammed saying:
“My people will be divided into 73 sects, all of them will be in the fire except one.” The companions asked, ‘Who are they O Messenger of Allah,’ Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “They are those who will be like me and my companions.”
So the gold standard here is clearly the example of Mohammed and his original followers. With odds of 72 to 1 against avoiding eternity in the fire, it is clearly a matter of some importance for Muslims to get it right. That is why various sects look back in history attemping to identify the version most in accordance with the original, authentic Islam.
The Ahmadi need only look back to the end of the 19th century when their Mahdi appeared in order to “restore Islam to it its true essence and pristine form, which had been lost through the centuries”. Naturally other Muslims regard them as heretical and they are persecuted in their native Pakistan.
Salafis look back to the first three generations of Muslims, the “righteous predecessors”. The Shia look back to the time of the fourth Caliph, Ali. IS look back to the first Caliph, Abu Bakr.
Of particular interest to would be reformers is the Sudanese religious thinker Mahmoud Taha who found the real Islam in the early Meccan phase. After 3 years of seclusion he announced that the lives of the early Muslims in Mecca were the supreme expression of their religion and consisted of sincere worship, kindness, and peaceful coexistence with all other people. In contrast the Medinan verses, full of rules, coercion, and threats, including the orders for jihad, were merely a historical adaptation to the reality of life in a 7th century city-state, in which “there was no law except the sword”. He was executed for apostasy in 1985.
So many differing views but actually the answer is right there in front of us. Allah defined both Islam and its best practice himself. Since Allah is known to be a fairly literal-minded sort of deity the real Islam must be Islam as it existed on the day he said:
“This day I have perfected for you your religion…” (Koran 5:3).
Since sura 5 is reckoned to be either the penultimate or the last substantive sura the real Islam must include the “fighting in Allah’s way” that Mohammed was concentrating on at the end of his career. By this time he had written to the various neighbouring kings, and even emperors, informing them that if they knew what was good for them they would convert without delay. He was already planning his move out of Arabia by attacking Byzantine Syria, thus taking his ambitions international.
Allah also provided an example for true Muslims to follow, again from the Medinan verses:
“There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day…” (33:21).
How was Mohammed conducting himself in Medina? Well, he was ordering amputation and crucifixion for trouble makers, and stoning for adulterers. He was torturing and beheading his enemies. He was calling for the unbelievers to convert, pay the jizya or be killed. He was sanctioning sex-slavery of non-Muslim women and boasting of casting terror into the hearts of unbelievers.
Remind you of anyone?
That’s right, looking around the world today there can only be one contender – ISIS in all their cruelty and depravity. Suppose Mohammed came back today to check on how the 73 sects were coming along. Do you think he would approve of those which have watered down the Sharia or those which decline to spread the word by holy war or those which get around the ban on usury or those which accord equal status to women? In particular, what would he make of those who claim that Islam is not what Allah told them it was but what they themselves say it is? Personally, I think he would call them hypocrites and tell ISIS “Well done boys, you’re the one.”