There are many popular debates on the nature of Islam. Some commentators would try to persuade you—perhaps by reference to one verse or another—that the real Islam is peaceful and that Muslims who are violent in the name of their faith are outliers. Other commentators would attempt to convince you—perhaps by reference to other verses—that Islam is violent and that peaceful Muslims are outliers who misunderstand the fundamental nature of their religion.Both these positions are intellectually impoverished. For non-Muslims, Islam does not and cannot have any fundamental nature at all, because Islam, in the way that most non-Muslims tend to think about it, does not and cannot exist. There are two reasons for this: one linguistic and the other ontological.
The linguistic problem involves the use of the definite article. When commentators refer to the Muslim community, to whom are they referring: Sufis in Liverpool, Iranian Shias in Central London, Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia? The notion—suggested by the word the—that there is a single Islamic community that provides a common point of reference makes no sense at all.
Next, let’s look at ontology. Before we can legitimately attach any moral values to Islam, we need to discuss how Islam can and cannot exist. Let’s use the analogy of the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. If I tell you that the members of the Chipping Sodbury Ladies’ Book Club think the book is outrageously sexist, you will assume most of them have read at least part of the novel and come to a consensus about it. Now imagine that the rival Little Sodbury Ladies’ Book Club has also read the book, but has arrived at a radically different interpretation. Most of them agree that the book is sexually empowering for women. So who is right?
In fact, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Opinions on books vary dramatically. I may opine that a book is terrible and you may opine that it is wonderful: these are two legitimate realities. The terrible book that exists for me is not the same book that exists for you. What matters is not who is right but what they think is right.
Communities tend to coalesce around subjective opinions, and subjective realities then become inter-subjective ones. Teenagers may form groups based on a shared love of a particular rock band, for example. A simple principle, such as the belief that skating or netball is good, can form a core around which a clique can grow. Conversely, similar bonds can be forged from mutual disdain for specific hobbies and passions. The existence of Fifty Shades of Grey can be verified by simple observation, but what it means to any individual reader is beholden to subjective and intersubjective filters that credit it with positive or negative qualities.
Human interpretations of phenomena often span a wide spectrum. We can readily see that the gentle theology of Little Sodbury’s elderly Anglican vicar differs radically from that of the Bible-thumping Arkansas pastor who insists that evolution is a fabrication and gay marriage an abomination. While we could deploy ethical analysis to try to decide who is right, experience tells us that the debate is largely pointless. People believe what they believe and—no matter how good our arguments—it is extremely hard to convince them otherwise. The pastor and the vicar have different truths. And it doesn’t really matter who we think is right, because they will both go on believing what they believe.
So what is Christianity? Given that the pastor and vicar are followed by radically different communities, can we legitimately define the Christian religion by reference to anything that is actually out there? Should we talk about the Christian community? Does Christianity actually exist beyond a set of symbols—or are there only Christianities, plural, organised into communities whose interpretations of the core text, the Bible, vary?
The Muslim Snow Patrol of the North-East of England is a community of Ahmadi Muslims, a profoundly socially conservative but non-violent group, organised around a coherent interpretation of the core Islamic texts that inspires them to act charitably towards their neighbours. What does this community have to do with the horrors perpetrated by the Islamic State? They read the same book, but come to radically different conclusions. While the Islamic State’s interpretation inspires them to lop off heads, the Muslim Snow Patrol’s interpretation inspires them to clear the drives of their elderly neighbours. Ontologically, this difference is similar to that between the two Ladies’ Book Clubs. That both interpretations exist indicates that the text they draw on can only exist as a shared set of symbols, to which the communities ascribe radically different interpretations. So which interpretation is correct?
Unless you’re an Islamic scholar, it really doesn’t matter in the slightest. Most individual Muslims believe their iteration of the faith to be the authentic one, and, within their personal and community spheres, they are perfectly entitled to that claim. But even the most ardently conservative Muslim would probably acknowledge that other communities contain people who believe otherwise and still call themselves Muslims (though he might dispute their right to do so). We must conclude that—aside from a set of symbols subject to different interpretations—neither the Islamic religion nor the Islamic community actually exist for non-Muslims. Neither Islam nor the Muslim community are single authorities, capable of marshalling behaviour towards any particular ends—as centuries of violent intra-faith conflict attest.
We therefore cannot legitimately attribute any moral value to the Islamic religion, since this is only a set of symbols, and how these symbols play out is determined by the individuals and communities who interpret them. Thus Islam cannot possibly be a religion of war, but neither can it be a religion of peace. It is a fiction: it does not and cannot exist, let alone lead to any consequences.
For any discussion of Islam to be meaningful, we must focus on which Islams are doing what, and not pretend that an interpretation of Islam is somehow more authentic because we consider it good (or bad). Anything that is believed is authentic for the believer or community of believers, regardless of whether the non-Muslim commentator likes the interpretation or not.
There are multiple Islams, which often have almost nothing to do with each other in the practical sense, beyond the superficialities of reading the same book, occasionally chanting the same prayers and sometimes wearing similar clothes. These superficial similarities are irrelevant compared to the ideological differences that lead to significant real-world consequences.
Until we acknowledge this, our discussions of Islam will remain dangerously misguided and irrelevant.