Muslim Separatists and The Idea of an “Islamic” State

The other day, someone on twitter said she would not allow ISIS (known as the Islamic State of the Levant) use the name of “her” religion.  In fact, scholars in Egypt had proposed that they be called “the Separatist movement” and take the word “Islam” out of it. This question raised here is: what exactly is “Islamic” about what they are doing and how they are doing it?

I have contended for at least 2 decades that people use the word “Islam” anyway they want to make any point they want.  More importantly, whoever has the power to assert their definition of the word “Islam” controls how it is used. I say the past 2 decades because I used to think I could somehow determine “pure” “Islam”—as opposed to cultural reflections, human imperfections, and intellectual genuflections.  I came instead to see that everyone has a definition of Islam and whose definitions held sway was less a matter of epistemology and more a matter of power.

So, I followed one of my intellectual mentors and agreed that for any discourse about Islam, a definition had to be established, agreed upon, and then consistently maintained. He suggested that a simple criteria referent be applied based on Islam’s two primary sacred sources: the text of the Qur’an and the normative practices of the Prophet Muhammad, called sunnah.  He juxtaposed these to “little traditions” in the multiple ways Muslims experience or live out their understandings of these two.

Part of the methodology of Islamic feminism and reformed Islamic thought has been to demonstrate a direct link to the two primary sources but with a different paradigm about key principles espoused there in- like justice, human dignity, and compassion.  From that point forward, I tend to provide my definition of Islam, give evidence to support that definition from the primary sources and then elaborate how it would work in application to whatever issue is at hand. 

It does not mean that I do not come up against other understandings of how these same principles would be applied or variant interpretations and implementations of the sacred sources.  Once I and those with whom I disagree locate our mutual arguments, then others have to apply their own rational thought to determine the merit of our methodologies and conclusions. By far, the greatest significance of this is to displace the functional tendency to grant authority and legitimacy only to conservative patriarchal thinkers.  They then would have the responsibility of developing a convincing argument, giving their evidence—as do I or any reformist thinkers or activists. This empowers divergent voices and neutralizes singular seats of authority and legitimacy- sort of the democratization of Islamic authority.

Since the horrible events in the US on September 11th 2001 I have experienced an overwhelming tendency of Muslim apologia.  Any time anyone who identifies as Muslim commits horrific acts, Muslim civil organizations and community leaders have been quick to not to condone these acts.  Sometimes they use the language “this is not Islam”. This is a slippery slope and I still measure the extent to which they define their terms and what control or power they have over the discourse.  I also do not ever feel like I am personally responsible for every act performed by every Muslim, good or bad.  So I don’t apologize.  I do however continue to live what I believe (that is justice, honor, truth and dignity) and to assert its possibility where ever I can. That did not change for me at September 11th.  However, the ability to argue for it was affected.

To engage in those arguments, I have become even more committed to the idea that Islam is NOT what every Muslim does and yet Islam is nothing if not lived by Muslims.  I do not then have to distance myself from every spurious action as a way to prove I am the true and good Muslim and they are the bad Muslim (hence the title of my previous blog).

When I encounter difference of opinions over what is a priority in Islam and Islamic thought and practice, I stick to this assertion.  I demand evidence in support of those arguments I disagree with and provide the same to validate my argument.  So while I disagree with some Muslims on a number of assertions, I do not deny them the right to make their assertions.

This has been put to the test by the organization known as ISIS.  First of all, they claim legitimacy to be the ruling body, or caliphate for all Muslims.  I can find no logic for this from within a vast and diverse Muslim history. We moved beyond the notion of empire about a hundred years ago and it was in disintegration for some time before that.  Now the Nation-State is the global model, and—for good or for ill—even Muslims make their peace with it. Actually, Muslims seem bent on not allowing any one body or any one government to speak for us all on any matter.  So there is zero possibility that ISIS could fulfill its objective in becoming the global leadership of a billion and a half Muslims.

It could be funny. At least several jokes have been poked at that ridiculous claim- except they are the worst thing I have ever encountered in all the years of my life: Muslim and pre-Muslim.

This has presented quite a conundrum.  For even those with whom I might vehemently disagree, I could see the logic of their argument and I could argue against it.  Then, onto the global arena comes a violent organization of Muslims sweeping through Iraq and Syria, brutally killing everyone who does not fall before its claim to be the ruling body for the empire of all Muslims.

Still, I demand some criteria for their definitions, some references to the two main sources of Islamic thought and action.  Instead, what I see is a blatant disregard for those sources even to their most absurd interpretations.

This is not an apology for ISIS, because frankly they can just go to hell.  This is only to assert that the actions that they have been performing exceed even the recommendations about how to engage with an enemy in battle; where all the sources of Islam first demands that war itself has to be declared and respect for prisoners of war and non-combatants is paramount.  This sweep of ISIS across Iraq killing non-Muslims who never declared war, including journalists- to say nothing of killing other Muslims in mass genocide- cannot be connected to any evidentiary base within Islam.

This is not a case of some one’s disagreeable interpretation of Islam. This is clearly outside of Islam.  So for those who oppose Islam, please recognize you have support amongst Muslims for putting a stop to this group.  We would uphold even our divergent interpretations while having a consensus that this is one bully we cannot claim and wish to employ all methods to put an end to. Do not use this as an occasion to sling Islam-hating which would distract us from coming together to stop them and to put its leaders on trial for crimes against humanity.


amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.


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1 thought on “Muslim Separatists and The Idea of an “Islamic” State”

  1. Montserrat Cifreno

    As the prophet waged wars against his enemies and imposed his rule through violence, it would be awkward to ban a group from using the word ‘Islam’ whenever it tries to impose the Islamic religion through violence.
    Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is or Christians could claim at least that the founders of their religions neither preached violence nor tried to impose their religious beliefs by force, although many of their followers did.
    So, either you accept that violence is sometimes legitimate or try to reform the Quran as Mahmoud Taha did, paying the attempt with his life.

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