The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night have sparked yet another debate about the Islamic State and Islam. The question boils down to this:Does Islamic scripture justify the violent actions of ISIS?
It’s worth noting at the outset that Islamic scripture is vast. It’s not just the Koran; it includes many statements later attributed to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, by his followers. Muslim scholars debate the authenticity of these scriptures like Christian scholars debate the authenticity of various passages in the Gospels.
Because the body of scripture is so large, it’s full of contradictions. Christians, for example, are both praised as brethren and scorned as infidels. Different schools of thought proliferated in early Islam to make sense of the contradictions. The Islamic State belongs to one of the more austere of those schools, so it’s already predisposed to intolerant readings of Islamic scripture.
Just as there are many passages in Islamic scripture that one could cite to justify religious intolerance, there are plenty more that justify violence. After all, Muhammad waged a war to establish a religious state. He fought infidels, assassinated rivals and executed prisoners. His career has a lot in common with the leaders of the ancient Hebrews, who established their own religious state.
Still, Muhammad was not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He could be lenient with his adversaries, make truces with his enemies and collaborate with the infidels for the common good.
The Islamic State elides these parts of Muhammad’s career or argues that they don’t apply today; its enemies are simply too powerful or too ruthless. The best example of this is the burning of the Jordanian pilot. Muhammad expressly forbade the burning of apostates, which is what the Islamic State labeled him.
Recognizing the contradiction, the Islamic State pointed to other scriptures where Muhammad endorsed retaliating against your enemies with the same sort of violence they used against you. The Jordanians dropped bombs on Islamic State targets, so ISIS had the right to incinerate one of Jordan’s pilots. If one scripture doesn’t justify ISIS’s violence, the Islamic State will find another one.
Which brings us to the attacks in Paris.
The Islamic State claims that the attacks are justified by scripture, but most Muslims claim they are not. As someone who’s spent most of his adult life studying Islamic scripture and the career of Muhammad, I find it implausible that Muhammad would have sanctioned such attacks were he alive today; he made too many pronouncements against attacking noncombatants.
Then again, the Islamic State can point to passages in scripture and incidents in Muhammad’s life to make the case.
Ultimately, it’s for Muslims to decide whether the Islamic State is being faithful to scripture. For the nonbelievers, it’s enough to recognize that Islamic scripture is contradictory when it comes to violence and to rejoice that most Muslims makes sense of these contradictions in a very different way than ISIS.
William McCants is the author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.” He directs the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.