How deadly is Islamic originalism?

The literal meaning of Islamophobia is fear of Islam and its adherents, and with every act of terror committed by Islamists this fear appears more understandable, if not justified. Neither ISIS nor Al-Qaeda is representative of all Islam of course, but ISIS’ doctrine as well the slightly less extreme Saudi version seem to be typical of the “back to the roots,” “true,” “pure” Islam.

The finest fruit of Islamic culture belong in the “impure” category. More often than not, calls for purity are calls for Puritanism or something similarly stiff-necked and simplistic.* Casting away all sophisticated interpretations of a religion’s foundational texts or myths leaves but the most straightforward interpretation.

Some American evangelicals manage to read the Gospels as a bigot’s little red book. By the reasonable person’s standard, it is hardly possible to ignore the Gospels’ emphasis on forgiveness and non-violence.**

Christianity started out as a much-maligned Jewish sect, continuing as an interethnic religion of non-violent martyrs until its gained widespread acceptance and become the empire’s state creed. Its foundational myth is the opposite of violent conquest.

In contrast, a “pure” Islam is bound to appeal to the experience of its first decades, to which violent conquest is pivotal.

* Simplistic despite Milton being a Puritan – but it’s unthinkable that a present-day Milton would join ISIS. There is something amusing about a Christian sect’s conceit that it is able to live by the literal meaning of both the Gospel and Deuteronomy when Jewish religious thought had abandoned literal interpretation by the time of Christ.

** But see two stories by Borges, The Gospel According to Mark and Three Versions of Judas.


  1. I was just saying to a friend the other day that Islam is one religion where you don’t want its adherents to try to imitate the founding father, unlike Christianity or Buddhism. Decadent Islam is definitely preferable to the puritanical kind; Moorish Spain was far better under the Ummayad caliphate than the Almohads or Almoravids.

    Offhand, I’d say the nearest Christian equivalents to ISIS have been extreme Protestant cults led by charismatic leaders. These figures tend to resort to antinomianism rather than Biblical literalism; they are prophets who claim they can ignore the scriptures and the commandments because they are in direct contact with God. This has rarely been a feature of Islam because for orthodox Muslims Muhammad was definitely the last prophet.

    I recently read an article by Tom Holland, the somewhat controversial popular historian. Holland suggests that increasing doubt about the details of Muhammad’s life might be a good way of undermining Salafism. Muhammad barely appears in the Quran and his biographies aren’t accorded the same reverence as the Gospels. It’s quite obvious that the exact details of Muhammad’s life were unclear very early on because the entire Sunni/Shia split is a result of not knowing exactly who he had nominated as his successor. On the other hand, fundamentalism is usually a response to such doubts (the theological equivalent of sticking fingers in your ears) so it may take a long time for these ideas to have much effect.

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