Reza Aslan: Radical Islam Is Still Islam 

The popular author says we can’t reject ISIS as non-Muslim. What’s needed is a rigorous expression of religious peace.

President Obama, in his speech to the United Nations last week, spoke of a “lethal and ideological brand of terrorists who have perverted one of the world’s great religions.” But is that true? Are the members of ISIL really perverting Islam, or are they simply interpreting the religion differently than more moderate Muslims.

Reza Aslan, a Muslim, a religion scholar and bestselling author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, thinks otherwise.

“I understand the impulse people of faith have to excise extremists in their communities. They’re not really Christians or Jews or Muslims. Many extremists appear to violate the fundamental values that many hold dear,” he says.

“The problem is that there is no single authority who decides who is a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, what is the proper behavior. It’s up to the individual. Whoever says he or she is a Muslim, he is. ISIL — with their sexual slavery, beheadings, killing of women and children, killing other Muslims — some might say is a violation of the Qu’ran. But because they choose to define themselves as Muslims, it has to be taken seriously.”

“. . . The power of scripture can mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s up to the interpreter.”

An open letter to the “fighters and followers” of the Islamic State from more than 120 Muslim scholars denounced them as un-Islamic. The writers used Qur’anic citations against torture, against attributing “evil acts to God,” and against declaring people non-Muslims “until he (or she) openly declares disbelief.”

Aslan says he is “not in the business of saying who is [Muslim]. They would not call me Muslim. I don’t pray five times a day. But we have to deal with the fact that they are part of our community. They use things to justify their beliefs [that are] the same things we use to define our religion.”

“A Christian blowing up an abortion clinic can find justification in the Bible” says Aslan. “Those blowing up a mosque can find justification. Jews killing Palestinians can find justification. The power of scripture can mean whatever you want it to mean. It’s up to the interpreter.”

The Muslim president of the United Voices for America, Ahmed Bedier, disagrees. “Please stop calling them the ‘Islamic State,’ because they are not a state and they are not a religion,” he told Religion News Service.

Likewise, as did George W. Bush before him, President Obama claims that “Islam teaches peace. Muslims the world over aspire to live with dignity and a sense of justice.”

President Obama stresses that “no God condones this terror. No grievance justifies this action.”

But Aslan says that “scripture is just words on a page. It requires someone to interpret it. It has more to do with the views and prejudices within a person than within anything in the text.”

He offers specific problems of interpretation: “It says in the Qu’ran that if you kill a single individual, it’s as if you have killed all of humanity. It also says to slay the idolater wherever you may find him. The Torah says do unto others, but it also instructs Jews to slaughter every man, woman, and child in the holy land who doesn’t follow the God of Israel. The same Jesus who says turn the other cheek also says he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one.”

Again, President Obama stresses that “no God condones this terror. No grievance justifies this action.”

But Aslan says it depends on how the individual understands God. “If you are a violent misogynist pig, you will find plenty in your scripture to justify violence. If, on the other hand, you are a peaceful, pluralistic democrat, you will find plenty of material in exactly the same scripture to justify your viewpoint.

“The power of scripture is that it is infinitely malleable.” Indeed, the reason some religious writings stand the test of time is that they are so highly interpretable. “The reason we read something someone wrote 5,000 years ago is not because it is true, but because it still matters, and it still matters because it can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. The history of religion is littered with dead scriptures, and they are dead because they weren’t malleable, they couldn’t evolve through the centuries, couldn’t be shaped in such a way as to address the ever-changing needs of human society.”

“I truly believe that the only antidote to religious violence is religious peace. The only antidote to religious intolerance is religious tolerance.”

As for the members of ISIS, Aslan says, “They are Puritans. This is a puritanical movement. They see themselves as purifying their religion, returning to a pure and unadulterated and totally imaginary past. They . . . see themselves in a Protestant way — individuals who have seized for themselves the power to interpret their faith.”

In his United Nations speech, Obama appealed to young Muslims to oppose radical Islam and to people from all faiths to interpret their religions in a moderate and peaceful way.

“It’s already being done,” says Aslan. “It’s important to understand that Jews are standing up to ethno-nationalism which has gripped so many citizens of Israel. Christians are pushing back against American fundamentalists in relationship to issues of the poor, immigration, equality of same sex couples. Muslims are pushing back on the use of Islam as a tool of terror.”

“What is needed,” adds Aslan, “is a robust counter interpretation. I truly believe that the only antidote to religious violence is religious peace. The only antidote to religious intolerance is religious tolerance.”

Image courtesy of Dying Regime.

Sally Quinn
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  • Martin Hughes

    A text that can mean anything is not much use as a guide to life. Perhaps Obama should, at this rate, appeal for general secularisation.

    • Sam

      What text can only mean one thing? Creative interpretation leads to modern Christianity didn’t it?

      And I am afraid I don’t understand your Obama comment or how it ties in. Would you be so kind as to elaborate?

      • Martin Hughes

        I think that there are such things as unambiguous statements – and though many statements, poetic an other, of debatable meaning are of great interest and value I would still think that those whose meaning goes beyond debatable to ‘whatever I choose’ are of little scientific and no moral value.
        If in fact most texts considered to be sacred can mean anything – and I’m not saying that this is so – then people will think that they have confirmation, indeed sacred confirmation, for the view of life they already take when in fact their view of life is merely, by determining how the texts are read, reinforcing itself. What is in fact highly arbitrary will seem to be beyond criticism, which would, if it were to happen, be a terrible thing.
        Obama seemed to be encouraging use of sacred texts, seemingly regarding the authentic interpretation as the one that supports his own existing moral views, a very unconvincing criterion. Perhaps it would at this rate be better or at least more logical if he appealed to ‘reason alone’. OK, I know that there are problems with ‘pure reason’.

        • Sam

          Would you be so kind as to provide an example of an unambiguous statement?

          And I don’t think that all things said in all texts, sacred or otherwise, can mean anything. But what is interpreted as valuable seems to be the crux. Jesus never said anything about homosexuality but the Christian Right in America seems intent on making sure it is clear that is what he meant by taking legislative action to prohibit the homosexual marriage but are not taking such measures to get rid of divorce which Jesus is quoted as talking about. This happens over and over again in Christianity and all religions. But Christianity can safely be stated to hold Jesus Christ as divine and the key to knowing the divine and receiving salvation from sin.

          This definition of Christianity is clear and rather unambiguous, although there is always room for that, but beyond that there could be positions anywhere on a wide swath of issues to even include items that are not even included in the Bible at all, such as the current American pop Christian concept about the rapture.

          This same thing can be understood about Islam. The sacred place of the Quran, the traditions of Prophets ending with Muhammad (the idea of other holy people after is debated), the practice of salat (either three or five times, or more), and certainly taqwa, the idea of the oneness of God. This creates a narrow yet broad definition of Islam.

          I don’t understand how Obama plays into this, but saying that he is promoting a certain perspective as though it is an abnormality or out of the norm is to ignore that everyone does this. Even regarding the ideas of equality and human rights are broadly interpreted my many people in many ways. I have no doubt that you have encountered this in your own communications in just the use of the English language and how even though you understand a word to mean a certain thing there are many, many others who disagree. I think the law is “For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.”

          And there will always be those who feel that another’s criterion is unconvincing. We as individuals need to learn to overcome these criticism by others just to participate in life as I am sure that you have yourself. You disregard criticisms of your criterion all the time otherwise you would be paralyzed by the inability to determine any course of action.

          To speak of Obama speaking in his role as the President of the United States is to speak in a different context again. He, just as any President, Premier, or Prime Minister, has a responsibility and an obligation to speak to as many of the people as possible and thus the use of broadly understood concepts and cultural reference points is an essential tool of not policy but certainly communication. When the disciples of Surak come to dominate the American cultural paradigm then the appeal (because it will still be an appeal) to pure reason, or logic, will hold sway over the country. Until then leaders will appeal to the dominate religious paradigms for a variety of ends and means.

  • Kelly Knight

    “A Christian blowing up an abortion clinic can find justification in the Bible”…..ah….not in my KJV, anyone else out there have a Christian Bible that tells them to blow up abortion clinic?

    • Joseph M

      This is the scripture that came to mind. I don’t argue that it is a good justification, just that it could be construed as one.

      from Matthew 18
      4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
      5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
      6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

      • Rihari_Wilson

        ” I don’t argue that it is a good justification”, You are right. Contrast the bombers with Paul in Romans 12:19 “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
        Jesus in Luke 6:27 “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,”

  • Michael R

    It’s true. ISIS is giving a very plausible, straightforward version of Islam, and a statement of denial by 120 Muslim scholars is not enough to defeat the ISIS interpretation of Islam, precisely because it is not a “robust counter interpretation”. Denial is not a strategy.

    However, scripture is not “infinitely malleable”. There are some undeniable themes throughout the Islamic holy books, the main one being that the prophet Mohammed is the perfect role model for all Muslims to follow (“a beautiful pattern of conduct”). In fact, there are 90 verses which implore Muslims to imitate the prophet in every way.

    The universal definition of Islam is: the worship of Allah, and the imitation of Mohammed. The only Muslims who deny this definition are superficial Muslims who obey the five pillars but don’t go deeply into the religion. But for the devout Muslim, seeking the right path, he inevitably is confronted with the biography of Mohammed. Alas, this is where the root of Islamic extremism lies.

    A quick look at the biography of Mohammed is enough to see that it reads like a war documentary. Houston, we have a major problem. Mohammed commanded 65 military campaigns, and fought in 27 of them. He beheaded a whole Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza. He beheaded poets and critics. He promised instant paradise with virgins for those who fought in the cause of Allah. And that’s just for starters.

    The problem with Islam is the violent life of the prophet Mohammed. Until we acknowledge this, we can’t even begin to construct a “robust counter interpretation”. Denial, and sweeping the problem under the rug, is the precise reason why the Muslim world never deals with the problem. And if the West likewise sweeps the problem under the rug, we are guaranteeing the turmoil in the Muslim world will be repeated right here in our own countries, with our growing Muslim populations.


      Denial (by non-Muslims) of the facts you list here leaves us vulnerable to a very violent form of religion. Denial of these facts by “moderate” Muslims do not eliminate them. There are no doubt millions of Muslims who are not violent. It is imperative that they establish some means of separation. No one else can do it for them.

      • rw

        I’m not saying anyone doesn’t already know, but holy shit! Things couldn’t be worse in the Middle East. Touch wood.
        Radical Islam is not going away. IS is going away, but the ideology will remain and will pick up where IS leaves off.
        I’m pretty sure this ideology will continue as is for the next 3 or 4 generations. So long as the West continues to wage war against this movement, terrorism and jihad will thrive. There’s a never ending supply of those willing to fight for their beliefs. The West needs a “final solution” for this problem or we’ll be trapped for ever fighting radical Islam.

        • Sam

          What “final solution” do you suggest?

          • kigozi muhammad

            Total isolation and indestructible sanctions for the next 3 centuries. I’m a Muslim, a rather progressive one, and I have finally seen what the problem is and what it’s causes were and how it can be stopped . Let’s ignore the acts Muslims do. Silent treatment , let them feel worthless and less newsworthy. Eventually they will realize that they nolonger make the ice breaking news. Look in life, when someone is totally ignored , they tend to give up on whatever they are doing Cuz for they will no that they are wasting time doing crap that people don’t give a shit about . The continual news coverage of their actions is the number one problem we are facing . They feel motivated seeing what damaged they have done and how the world responds to their acts of terror. So this is the main solution .. Ignore them. Or else u atomically Bomb their remains and they will leave to be remembered in dust.

          • Sam


            That’s pretty horrific and doesn’t sound particularly progressive or Islamic to me. I suppose you can extract ayahs from the Quran to support this treatment of human beings much as al-Qaeda and ISIS does but only by equally ignoring others such as 5:32.

            Either way, the Taliban and al-Qaeda (especially pre-9/11) seem to be spurred on by inner purpose rather than outside attention. They were more than willing to commit horrendous acts when no one was paying attention and I don’t think ignoring them is going to stop them from killing or brutalizing anyone. If anything they will have the opportunity to continue to perpetuate their horrors on and on. Even three hundred years of solitude won’t fix that. If you have historical data to the contrary please share it.

            Bombing them into extinction (i.e. genocide) may work in that you utterly eliminate the people, culture, and mimetic cultural conceptions. That sounds very neo-crusader and I am sure you could find much support for this idea among more of the fundamental and violent members of Western socio-culture. But once again such an idea doesn’t ring to me as very Islamic or progressive (despite conservative claims to the contrary).

            So what justifications, historical, Islamic, progressive, do you use to support these behaviors?

      • Sam

        Facts? What sources do you cite?

    • rw

      ISIS is a virus of the mind that appears to be spreading at an alarming rate. Do we fight it now, or do we pass this off to our next generation like everything else? Where are the B-52’s? Time to call in the carpet bombers.

      • Michael R

        ISIS shares its ideology with the prophet Mohammed. That makes it a 1400 year-old ideology. It needs to be treated as an evil seditious ideology like communism or nazism. An old-fashioned policy of isolate-and-contain is the only stable long-term solution.

        • Sam

          Should we have isolated and contained Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or the southern states during the Jim Crow era?

      • Sam

        Do you think more indiscriminate killing is the solution?

        • rw

          Do you think more indiscriminate killing is the solution? Well, it’s a only an idea. ISIS is actually practicng this.

          Plan (A) (Oct/Nov/ Dec. 2014) has been time used to soften up the American public to becoming more open to the idea of sending 150,000 troops back into the Middle East.

          Plan (B) let ISIS spread throughout the entire Middle East and then arm the resistence. Resutl: never ending civil war.

    • Sam

      That is an interesting interpretation.

      IS is certainly strengthened by such interpretations. It solidifies the idea that they are correct and further helps construct the with us or against us argument.

      I think my favorite story of the Muhammad is the one about the lady who kept throwing trash on him day after day. You have done your homework so I am sure you know it. Why did you not bring it up?

    • Sabrina Q.

      I think the saddest part of your post is this division you (and countless others) have created between “superficial” and “devout” Muslims. It’s not really fair for anyone to decide who practices a religion better than someone else. You can’t really just invalidate someone’s spirituality that way.

      And yes, people do it.

      The problem therein lies with the idea that people within a religion no longer have autonomy over their own interpretation of a religion.

      That’s why it’s not really a problem of “Mohammed was a violent person”. Personally, I wouldn’t care if he slaughtered 200 virgins and danced in their blood. *Islam* is not the life of Mohammed. Religions change. They evolve.

      At the end of the day, someone’s religion should be something personal and sacred. When will we stop forcing other people to think just like we do? Christianity has gone through countless divisions and offshoots, and no one bats an eye anymore when someone says “I practice being Christian *this* way.”

      Islam is still catching up. THAT is the ultimate problem.

      Muslims are not pushing things under the rug. They are not in denial. Saying those things is damaging. You are directly insulting their right to interpret their religion how they want to. You are marginalizing their opinions by saying they choose to ignore facts.

      No. They aren’t ignoring anything. They are fighting a much bigger and more important problem. Just like Christians have done for the last 2000 years.