Islamic State Part Two

The Driving Philosophy/Theology of Islamic State

 The Story so far: Islamic State is very Islamic. To disregard the religious aspect of Islamic State is a recipe for disaster.

Driving home the other day I heard on the radio some breaking news that five people had been stabbed to death and that (and I quote) “Up to this point no motive has been established”. The phrase “up to this point no motive has been established” is an accurate description of our approach to Islamic State. The ridiculous description of it as “a death cult” by our Prime Minister is indicative of this, as was his statement that Islamic State was “tempting young people to do silly things”. Janet Albrechtson, who is so far to the right that she meets herself coming in on the left, at least states the problem ”Unless we identify the source of this evil, we cannot hope to confront it and defeat it.” The same is echoed by General Michael Negata, the US Special Operations Commander for the Middle East, who said of Islamic State “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

In her book published this week Ayaan Hirsi Ali seeks to analyse the situation. Her book is entitled “Heretic” with the sub title being “Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now.” The first part of the title is how she sees herself. The second is how she sees Islam today. It is by far the best book she has written. She has lived through the personal anger and horror, and now seeks to deliberately consider the situation and ameliorate the problem.

Before I try and do the same, let me try and summarise Ali’s analysis of the situation. Her thesis is that Islam needs a reformation, “similar to what took place in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries as both traditions gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past”. She then goes on to state four precepts of Islam that need to be reformed

(1) Mohammad’s semi divine status along with a literalist reading of the Koran.

(2) The supremacy of life after death.

(3) Sharia law and its enforcement

(4) The imperative of holy war.

In addition to this, Ali identifies three groups of Muslims

(a) Medina Muslims. These are the ones who argue for an Islam unchanged from its seventh century beginnings. They see conversion and the imposition of Sharia as their religious duty and do not hesitate to use violence to further this end – as did Mohammad when he moved to Medina.

(b) Mecca Muslims. These are the ones who focus on religious observance and the practice of their faith. Their problem is modernity which challenges their religion and their values and results in them disengaging from contemporary society and isolating themselves.

(c) Heretics. These are the ones “who have been forced to conclude that we could not continue to be believers yet remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. With this group Ayaan Hirsi Ali identifies herself. “For me there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the west to embrace. I left the faith despite the death penalty prescribed by Sharia for apostates”

Ali maintains that “the biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is the suppression of critical thinking I am attempting here”.


How do I see all of this? I see it as a significant contribution to the debate but differ with her analysis in quite a few respects.

Firstly, her understanding of “heretic” is different to mine. She sees heretics as people “who have been forced by experience to conclude that they could not continue to be believers”. For me a heretic is one who strongly believes notwithstanding his/her stance being different to that of the Establishment.

Secondly, the use of the word reformation is confusing in the light of “The Reformation” in Christian history. Granted their common preoccupation with life after death, the Reformation had little to do with the reformation required within Islamic State. Ali in effect concedes this when she says “The only real certainty about the Muslim Reformation is that it will not look much like the Christian one.” Where she sees the relevance is in “the liberation from hierarchical and priestly authority”.

Thirdly, she maintains that her book “is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam”. I think I preferred her approach of previous days which was far more direct: “We are not dealing here with a handful of murderous thugs…We have to acknowledge that they are drivers of an ideology embedded in the foundational texts of Islam”.

Fourthly, the issue of violence/non violence in our society and its relationship to religion is neglected – as is the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was non violent.


Islamic Fundamentalism

With all this in mind let me then look at what I describe as Islamic Fundamentalism. I will do this by looking at the question of Fundamentalism in relation to the Christian faith. The word “fundamentalism” is after all a specifically Christian word and makes little sense to Muslims.

(a) There are today a growing number of Christians who recognize that our understanding of the faith has changed enormously over the past two thousand years and particularly the last two centuries. I, for example, belong to a small group who go by the name “Progressive”, a name that I consider unfortunate as it has an element of status about it. Such is certainly not the intent. The name is intended to denote a recognition of the need to “rethink Christian belief in the light of insights and understandings not available to earlier generations.” Post Galileo and Darwin, God is no longer a guy in the sky pulling the levers but the “ground of our being”, the dynamic energy inviting us to fullness of life. I resist the temptation to explain further our theological stance and will append a reference to an address I gave in 2014. There is, of course, no guarantee that I still think the same as I did then!

(b) Strange as it may seem, not all Christians think the same as I do and many are locked into a mindset and experience of an earlier time. The name they go by is “Fundamentalists”. It is a recent name dating back to the early late nineteenth and early twentieth century where the inexorable march of time had philosophers like Nietzsche asserting that God as we understood “him” had died. There was a strong reaction against this so called “Modernism” and a group emerged to “battle royal for the fundamentals”. They were known as “Fundamentalists” and asserted the inerrancy of the Bible, and substitutionary atonement where after death the faithful are transferred to another world where God sits “with his saints to reign”.

(c) The net result is that within the Christian faith there is now a huge range of understanding of its significance and practice.

It goes almost without saying I hope that the same goes for Islam, and herein lies what I consider to be the base point of any discussion of Islamic State. To argue whether Islamic State is or is not Islamic is to miss the point completely. It is the fundamentalist aspect of Islam, in which the Koran is inerrant and heavenly reward is the name of the game. Islamic State is Islamic Fundamentalism in action and needs to be recognized as such. It is the starting point to the understanding of the problem.

In Part Three, I will look at what might be done in the light of this understanding


Reference: “Progressing to Where?” Email:




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