Is It Time to Separate Islam From the Muslim World?

Amidst the ongoing violence in the region, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia prodded Muslims "to stand in the face of those trying to hijack Islam," alluding to the advance of the extremist group, the Islamic State (IS/ISIS). A debate on Islam, however, is exactly what the Muslim world does not need. In fact, it is the exact space to which the most extreme among Muslims want to take the discussion: to converse in verse, trade in texts, and cite and incite. The rise of the latest round of millenarian misfits should instead prod us to deal with a necessary but paradoxical reality: the separation of Islam from the Muslim world.

The Muslim world is the community of over 1.5 billion people living predominantly in Asia and Africa, in contours largely defined by a series of empires and conquests over the last 14 centuries, following the advent of Islam. Muslims themselves will refer to this global community as the umma or nation. The term "Muslim world" itself is not without controversy as it too often connotes an essentialized sameness across hundreds of millions of people who could not be more different, including non-Muslim religious minorities. Yet, like any shared community, differences are accompanied by a common basis for identity and in this case it is found in the fissures and fluctuations of Islamic history. A great book to read on this subject is Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes.

Nevertheless, this shared context based on the spread and dominion of a faith, too often leads to the conflation of the problems -- and solutions -- of the Muslim world with Islam itself, when they are more closely related to other developments (that may be correlated with but not caused by Islam). And the ones that get caught most often in this paradigm, besides frothing Islamophobes, are Muslims themselves. When a group like ISIS emerges, the effective response is not to cite verse 109:6 from the Qur'an (although it's a good one): To you your religion, and to me my religion. It's an enlightening exercise but it also misses the point.

Firstly, IS/ISIS, al Qaeda and related Salafi-jihadi groups throughout the Muslim world have very limited adherents, often dovetailing with or piggy-backing on local grievances and claiming larger followerships than they in fact have. Most Muslims are not walking out of their homes right now to kill the Christian next door (i.e., they've accepted the aforementioned verse). Secondly these militant groups are on the fringe, akin to a globalized cult-cum-gang; having a reasoned religious discussion is not really going to lead to a compromise result. Finally, when you're dealing with religious maximalists, shifting society's discourse to a religious text is a victory in it of itself for them, ceding the playing field to the people best equipped to be last standing with an excerpt of ancient scripture.

More broadly the approach of religious discourse divorces us from what is the larger crisis facing the Muslim world, which is one of being mired in a political, social and economic malaise, characterized by hollow leadership and disintegrating states, an environment into which extremism seeps. And it's in the face of this that Muslim leaders, activists, and thinkers need to speak with an anthropological and sociological lens when it comes to Muslim societies rather than a theological one. This is important on two levels. One, it allows for analysis based on the Muslim world being a community rather than being synonymous with a static text (and its respective derivations and appendices). Two, it pushes back against the zero-sum space into which the dueling secular hyper-nationalists and Islamists of today, and the post-colonial period more generally, have been trying to push much of the Middle East and beyond, forcing a choice between the state and the religion. The truth is somewhere in-between, because societies of Muslims will be undeniably 'Islamic' in ethics but they should not then be held hostage by the scripturapturists (my word) of the day.

It would be misguided when treating the disease of the so-called Islamic State to try to diagnose a problem with "Islam" itself. Yet, even worse, would be the prescription of a solution that is religiously based. The Muslim world needs less not more of Islam (or its clerical representatives) in the political and public space. The Middle East needs less not more theological debates. What it needs are thinkers -- perhaps similar to Syed Ahmad Khan and Jamal Al Din Afghani of times past -- that do not deny their (religious or cultural) identity but who also do not think that the solution is the verbatim implementation of every hadith (saying of the prophet).

In facing the dangerous situation today presented by the Islamic State and its ideological peers, we should be clear: There is no crisis in Islam. But, there is, conversely and unmistakably, an existential crisis (or crises) in the Muslim world. It is time to speak and act accordingly.