Is ISIS Really Islamic?


As a Christian pastor I’ve made it a practice to not weigh in on the disputes that overtake other religions and social movements that I am not a part of. I think there’s a difference when seeing things from the inside versus an outsider’s comments. But I’m going against that course of action because it is often Christians, at least here in Oklahoma, who are making any number of judgments about Islam. In that I want to provide an alternative viewpoint.

Is ISIS Islamic? To answer that question it seems to me that we need to have a distinction between a descriptive account versus a normative account. A descriptive account would seek to downplay any claims about an ideal Islam, or what Islam ought to be about. It merely gives us some key identifiers, practices, beliefs that one can then go down the check list to see if it qualifies or not. In that, it would not be hard to make a case that ISIS is indeed Islamic.

They claim to follow the Qur’an, they claim to follow the Hadiths, they have declared themselves Islamic. As one congressman noted,“They don’t call themselves the Methodist state or the Episcopalian state or the Baptist state,” he said. “They’re the Islamic State…” You can even trace their ideas to the Saudi Wahhabis even if they are at cross purposes politically. In fact they claim to be the “true” expression of Islam, though given how diffuse Islam is, how that is possible is an open question.

The best one can do is to treat religion like Wittgenstein’s language games. All you need is enough of the shared components to believe it is playing the same game. You can do this with any religion. If you said Christians all revere Jesus, all use the Bible, all form churches, all practice baptism, all claim to be Christian, then you just would go down the checklist. Was Fred Phelps Christian? Yes indeed.  Mother Theresa? Yes. The KKK? Of course. Your local Methodist church down the street? Absolutely. As a descriptive account this would seem to solve the problem.

But ever since the Axial age, the major world religions have claimed something more. They have claimed to affect a moral transformation in people. They have an ideal, a vision of how they envision themselves and the world to be. They are not merely a checklist of beliefs and practices. If you winced at me calling the KKK and Fred Phelps Christian, you already have this embedded in you. That is, this debate about whether ISIS is Islamic is really sneaking in a normative account of the religion.

If you wish to develop a normative account of the religion though a range of considerations need to come into play. First might be, how does most of the Islamic world receive ISIS? It’s clear that every major Islamic federation around the world condemns ISIS from Germany, the UK, to the US including Oklahoma.

But I think the normative and the descriptive are being confused and in ways that seem to benefit those who would malign Islam. To say that ISIS is descriptively Islamic is a given. But to say that it represents what most Muslims believe, hope for, envision the end of their religion to be is simply not the case. In a religion with over a billion people around the world, where only a 1/4 of which live in the Middle East, you can’t make the case that this represents normative Islam. Even Sam Harris agrees as much.

But then he skirts around this by claiming that the vast majority of Muslims do not take their faith seriously. But to call over a billion people not serious because they don’t practice violence, they don’t support terrorism..well, that is an impressive claim. How does he pull this off? What do most Muslims not know that Sam Harris does know?

The scriptures of course. Harris is able to go through the Qur’an to find verses which counsel violence. While he admits there are passages which condemn violence, including the famous passage “there is no compulsion in religion”, these are easily overwhelmed by violent passages according to Harris. Now he admits that the Bible includes such passages but he finds an interpretative lens through Jesus to claim that they do not hold the same power. At least not today. But that doesn’t answer how Judaism is able to read the Tanakh in a non violent way. Harris sneaks in some supersessionism to claim that Jesus made everything different.

But given church history, that has not always been the case. Until the modern era, its hard to envision everything from the Inquisition to the witch trials as not coming from the same Bible that we as Christians today read non violently. But there was the history of religious wars, there was the Enlightenment, there was a Reformation that remade how we thought of religious questions. Sam Harris believes that such a reformation is not possible in Islam.

But it’s already happening. I’d point to a plethora of progressive groups including Muslims for Progressive Values which describes itself as “an inclusive community interested in discussing, promoting and working for the implementation of progressive values – human rights, freedom of expression, and separation of church and state as well as inclusive and tolerant understandings of Islam.” These groups are often emerging in the west, especially with a younger generation of Muslims.

Today there are Muslim groups working for GLBT acceptance, for the rights of women, for peace and democracy, even if a minority (and they would be a minority in the Christian world as well) but they nonetheless represent potential strands that could make for a reformation. And they read the Qur’an differently. I agree with Harris that such a reformation is needed but by discounting Muslims who are doing just that, by discounting a positive role for the Qur’an in such a reformation means that Harris really just wants Islam to go away. And he should be upfront about that.

When Oklahoma politicians (and others) often warn about Islam, they are not supporting reformers or moderates, they are not wanting a better Islam, and they are not warning against extremists. As our most recent example here indicates: “Rep. John Bennet told constituents that “Islam is a cancer on the nation that needs to be cut out.” He previously posted a comment on his Facebook page telling viewers to be wary of those who call themselves Muslim-Americans.”

That would be called religious bigotry, not critique. And now Muslims in our state are facing death threats. I almost wonder if there isn’t projection happening. A recent survey found that Christians were more likely to support violence to achieve certain ends then Muslims, including here in the US. And yet it is Islam that is considered the threat. And all Muslims are to be treated with suspicion. If we placed any other religious group in Bennet’s statements, this would receive outrage.

That is not to deny what we see in front of our own eyes; religious extremists in violent and poor areas of the world have taken on a great amount of political significance in ways that are frightening to behold. Especially for the Muslims who are often the targets of groups like ISIS. But does anyone believe that if we had not invaded Iraq, there would be an ISIS in the first place? Is there a reason in a recent survey that Jordanians, who have a stable government, do not support suicide bombings but Gazans who face a blockade and missiles, are more likely to support them?

I don’t oppose raising questions about Islam. but I have some questions too. Can we address these political questions in a specific area of the world, or is everything about belief as if belief can be separated from the material conditions from which they arise? I question that you can do that with any religion. Do critics want to support moderate Islam and if so how? Is there a way to create an open space for criticism without broad generalizations? By asking if ISIS is Islamic, I think we’ve missed more substantial questions that are relevant if we want to see a more peaceful world.

Dwight Welch is the new pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma




  1. Great article. I would add one thing, though. I really don’t think the supercessionist argument even holds true in Christianity. Think of the descriptions of utter violence in Revelation, or even the invective of Paul against the circumcision party in his letter to the Galatians (‘I wish they would castrate themselves! ‘). From the earliest days, Christians have been willing to appeal to what Walter Wink called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’.


  1. […] wrote a post about this last year on ISIS and I raised a distinction that could be helpful here. There are descriptive accounts and normative […]

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