How Does Islam Determine What Is ‘Islamic’?

What relationship does the Islamic State, ISIS, have to Islam? Almost every Western politician answers: “Absolutely nothing.” President Obama adamantly stated in a televised address that the Islamic State “is not Islamic.”

So how does one determine what is, and is not, Islamic? The traditional process -- the Islamic answer -- is as follows:

What do the core texts and scriptures of Islam say about the thing in question? Does the Koran, believed by Muslims to contain the literal commands of Allah, call for or justify it? Do the hadith and sira texts -- which purport to record the sayings and deeds of Allah’s prophet, whom the Koran (e.g., 33:21) exhorts Muslims to emulate in all ways -- call for or justify it?

If any ambiguity still remains, the next inquiry is: what is the consensus (ijma‘) of the Islamic world’s leading authorities concerning it? Here, one most often turns to the tafsirs, or exegeses of Islam’s most learned men -- the ulema -- and considers their conclusions.

Muhammad himself reportedly said that “my umma [Islamic nation] will never be in agreement over an error.”

For example, the Koran commands believers to uphold prayers; accordingly, all are agreed that Muslims need to pray. But the Koran does not specify how many times. In the hadith and sira, however, Muhammad makes clear that believers should pray five times. And the ulema, having considered all these texts, are agreed that Muslims are to pray five times a day.

Thus, it is most certainly Islamic for Muslims to pray five times a day.

But while both Western politicians and Islamic apologists readily accept such methodology to determining what is Islamic -- prayer is in the Koran, Muhammad clarified its implementation in the hadith, and the ulema are agreed to it -- whenever the question deals with anything that makes Islam "look bad," to Western sensibilities, then the aforementioned standard approach to ascertaining what is Islamic is wholly ignored.

Let us consider some of the most extreme acts committed by the Islamic State -- beheadings, crucifixions, enslavements, sexual predations, massacres, and the persecution of religious minorities -- and put them to the test. Let us see if they fill the same criteria for being Islamic, especially in the context of jihad, which has its own set of rules.

Beheadings

The Islamic State beheads "infidels" -- including women and children. This aspect of the Islamic State has provoked horror around the world. Is it Islamic?

The Koran calls for the beheading of Islam’s enemies, especially in the context of war, or jihad:

“When you encounter infidels on the battlefield, strike off their heads until you have crushed them completely” (47:4). Another verse states: “I will cast terror into the hearts of infidels -- so strike off their heads and strike off all of their fingertips [i.e., mutilate them](8:12).

As for the other criteria -- the example of the prophet, and the consensus of the umma -- Timothy Furnish, author of the 2005 essay “Beheading in the Name of Islam,” writes:

The practice of beheading non-Muslim captives extends back to the Prophet himself. Ibn Ishaq (d. 768 C.E.), the earliest biographer of Muhammad, is recorded as saying that the Prophet ordered the execution by decapitation of 700 men of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe in Medina for allegedly plotting against him. Islamic leaders from Muhammad’s time until today have followed his model. Examples of decapitation, of both the living and the dead, in Islamic history are myriad.

For centuries, leading Islamic scholars have interpreted this verse [decapitation verse, 47:4] literally.

Many recent interpretations remain consistent with those of a millennium ago.