July 7th, 2016 by Hafiz Noor Shams
As an individualist, I do not condemn a whole community for wrongs of the few. I do not subscribe to collective blaming for individual crimes. Each person is responsible for his or her action. In the context of terror acts frequently committed by Islamic extremists these days, I would not ask a random Muslim to apologize for killings done by his coreligionists located thousands of miles away. To make such demand is just dumb.
It is dumb because Islam as practiced all over is diverse and its interpretation varies from group to group. The interpretations range from puritan to liberal, from medieval to modern, from mystical to logical. One interpretation can even be hostile to the other, making the act of blaming one side for the other’s violence as nonsensical.
The same diversity makes it wrong to claim ISIS and all of its terror acts done in the name of the Islamic god has nothing to do with the religion. As if there is one true Islam and only those Muslims subscribe to it. On the contrary, ISIS has everything to do with the religion.
There is no one Islam anymore. However strongly many Muslims would want to stress on the unity of the religion, the truth is that the successful proliferation of Islam beyond Arabia is due to its ability to absorb local beliefs, among other things. Its syncretic nature gives rise to its diversity.
All Muslims share several core tenets but that does not make all Islams as the same. The nature, the nuance, the outlook and the way of life of a Malaysian Muslim is very different from that living in the Middle East. Even within Malaysia, the general Islam experienced in Kuala Lumpur is very different from that in Kota Bahru.
War did advance Islam but war alone could not guarantee lasting belief. The religion had to be tolerant of some local practices to entice and keep people to its side. You could observe the result of the syncretism among the Malays in Malaysia. Traditional Malay wedding ceremony for instance has hints of Hindu influence. The Malays after all, were largely Hindus, Buddhists and animists before the arrival of Islam in the 1100s-1400s to Southeast Asia. Archipelagic Islam developed based on that old Malay (and others like the Javanese) foundation. Post-independence nation state context further influences the interpretation and practice of Islam in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region, that the state used religion to promote nationalism. Brunei is the other example where religion is a subservient tool of nationalism.
The idea that there is one Islam is not only untrue across geography. It is also untrue across time. Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God shows that early Muslims believed they were part of the Christian community. While mainstream Muslims today accept all of the Christian prophets, they do not consider themselves as Christians. Early Muslims did not share such a strong distinction. A separate Islamic identity developed only after the hijra. Indeed, before meeting the Medina Jews, Muhammad thought Christians and Jews were of the same belief and Islam was merely renewing the two religions that came from the same god. The conflation between Christianity and Judaism would not have been a mistake if Muhammad had lived centuries earlier when Jesus was preaching. Armstrong demonstrated that early Christians thought they were Jewish in religious terms and that they themselves thought they were renewing the religion of Moses.
Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms chronicling the old communities of the Middle East shows how minor religions like the Mandaenism sprung out of the Abrahamic beliefs by holding on to dogmas modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam now reject. Apart from the rejected beliefs, these minor religions are or were similar in so many ways to the major three faiths. These minorities are fossils from the days when the three world’s religions were rapidly evaluating their creeds and figuring out what worked and what did not. They are the living proofs that religion evolves over time, just as dinosaur fossils are proof that the Earth is older than 4,000 years.
All religions evolve and adapt to time, geography and culture and whatever other secular forces.
The one Islam may exist as a Platonic idealism but that model is irrelevant to the material world. The Islam that matters are the practical ones: the interpreted ones.
And so I do disagree with the claim that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. ISIS’s is a disagreeable brand of Islam but it is a brand of Islam nonetheless. It is a brutal brand as a reaction to the disastrous 2000s war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
There is a parallel to this. A harsh puritan form of Islam appeared after the massacre and the razing of Baghdad in the 1200s-1300s by the Mongols. That Islam sought to return the religion to the early Meccan and Medinan days, rejecting intellectual progress achieved in the previous 700 years that made Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus the great capitals of the world during its times.
There is a Muslim tradition that leads to ISIS. That post-Mongol puritan Islam as rationalized by Ibn Taymiyyah informed modern day wahabbism and the salafism, which in turned influenced ISIS.
We should go further and explain why ISIS’s interpretation is so problematic. Their interpretation is that theirs is the true form and everybody else’s is false. ISIS believes theirs is the one true Islam while rejecting the diversity that exists in the religion.
That similarity, between ISIS and those who claim ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, amuses me. Both sides build their argument that their version is the one true Islam.
That logic shared by the two parties is not merely a source of amusing coincidence unfortunately. There is something more sinister about it.
Because there is only one true interpretation, then there is only one way of doing things and everything else is wrong. The religious diversity is rejected altogether. The magic word here is puralism. The corrupt Malaysian state is also guilty of this by politicizing Islam to legitimize its increasingly undemocratic hold to power, that the state is the guardian of the supposedly Platonic Islam. To add to the sense that the religion is being manipulated, I should write, the guardian of Platonic Malaysian Islam.
From where I stand, I feel the difference between the two sides is only a matter of degrees of intolerance and coercive force. I would not be shocked if it really about the ability to exert coercion for a large minority in Malaysia. After all, did a survey last year not show 11% of Malaysian Muslims sympathize with ISIS?
And this is a problem. When you want to fight ISIS yet you share the same intolerance however different the degree is, your fight is logically unconvincing and turns out into choosing the lesser of the two evils.
Sometimes, we can reject all evils.
 — See In nations with significant Muslim populations, much disdain for ISIS. November 17 2015.
p/s – Tolerance to diversity itself does not make ISIS okay. There are other values more important that blind diversity, like individual rights.