Why We Need to Stop Trying to Identify “True” Islam

Recent months have seen increased coverage of Muslim radicals in the Middle East, presidential statements about what is and what is not “real” Islam, and new articles on where groups like ISIS fit in the Muslim faith, if at all. I have also just finished teaching a class called “Islam, Politics, and the Middle East.” So this post, as well as several to come, will be a result of some fresh reflection on these topics.

For starters, here’s why we need to stop trying to identify “true” Islam.

Before 9/11, most Americans, including myself, had no rhetorical framework within which to make sense of Islam. And the way in which Americans came to talk about Islam after this event quickly led us into the rhetorical ditch. It began when George W. Bush made the statement that Al-Qaeda had “hijacked” the religion of Islam. This statement was problematic, although not for the reason some of my conservative Christian Obama Capturefriends might think.

I was in graduate school in 2001, just beginning my PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. My entry into the study of Islam came through this program at UI as well as by necessity when I took a job teaching part-time at a local community college. I also had the privilege of incorporating the study of Islam as a secondary field in graduate school during the wake of the 9/11 attacks and during the beginning stages of the War on Terror. I wrote sections of my comprehensive exams on Islam and studied and taught under an Islamic scholar, Ahmed Souaiaia.

Does this mean I am a specialist in Islam or the Middle East? No. My field of specialization is American religious history. But with my graduate school background in place, I have spent the last 14 years developing Islam and the Middle East as areas of teaching competency.

Back to George W. Bush. The problem with his rhetoric (“hijacked”) is that it steered discussions about Islam down a reductionist road. What does this mean? It means that Bush’s statement assumed Islam could be boiled down to some core essence against which any group or individual could be measured. “True” Islam, Bush said, is a religion of peace, and therefore, since these terrorists employed violence, they cannot be considered Muslims. (And, of course, he also had political reasons for taking this rhetorical path.) This, however, is a terribly flawed place to begin a national conversation about Islam. It was suggesting that nearly 1500 years of Islamic history and civilization — millions of believers, hundreds of local traditions, tribal identities, main branches and splinter groups, rationalists and mystics, revolutionaries and traditionalists — could be reduced down to only two mutually exclusive possibilities: Islam is either peaceful or violent.

Really? Religions, especially those that are historically welded to political empires and civilizations, are not one-dimensional entities. Rather, and this should be obvious, traditions like Islam and the real-life people who call themselves Muslims are multidimensional.

Mir Zohair Husain's Global Islamic Politics is one of the most useful textbooks I've found in this area.
Mir Zohair Husain’s Global Islamic Politics is one of the most useful textbooks I’ve found in this area

The question of “true” Islam is a question for Muslims to debate — and they have fought about it for centuries. This is not to say that one needs to be an insider to understand any particular membership or speak intelligently about a certain group. (If this were true we would all be quite limited as to what we could teach about.) But as outsiders, we must acknowledge that Islam, like any faith or historic civilization has been a tradition of competing visions, establishments and anti-establishments, peaceful and violent adherents, competing theological perspectives and schools of jurisprudence, as well as mainstream voices and minority voices. Of course, this multidimensional quality has not been intentional for many Muslim establishments, but it is the reality. When one belief system has covered as much territory, encompassed as many indigenous people groups, and informed as as many people as Islam has since the 7th century, it cannot be avoided.

The question of “true” Islam is a problematic place to begin because it is a futile exercise. And when dialogue begins with a bad question, the discussion is doomed from the start.

So why are we still stuck in the reductionist rut? Why have we continued to ask this question for the last 14 years? Why does President Obama continue to use the same reductionist language?

Simply put, we need to stop trying to understand Islam from a dualistic framework that reduces this tradition down to simplistic categories that simply do not account for the contingencies of the real world. The alternative? We must seek to understand particular Muslims in their distinctive historic, cultural, social, and intellectual contexts.

– Jared Burkholder

4 thoughts on “Why We Need to Stop Trying to Identify “True” Islam

  1. Wow, bless you for putting this out there in such an accessible and non-threatening way.

    As a medievalist, I’ve been caught up in another piece of the same debate, since I started to get lots of questions (and hear lots of opinions) about the Crusades after the President referenced them in a speech. What I keep hearing is another species of the same reductive argument you’re talking about here: those who want to see the Crusades as a bunch of, greedy, fanatical, imperialistic Christians massacring peaceful, enlightened Muslims, and those who want to see them as peaceful, enlightened Christians defending themselves from the aggression of greedy, fanatical, imperialistic Muslims. Of course, the real situation (even if one ONLY sticks to the first Crusade and ignores the rest of them), was complex enough to make both those characterizations horribly inaccurate and entirely unhelpful. (I think I just conceptualized my own next blog post!).

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