Yesterday morning began inauspiciously, with me reading of an awful op-ed that attempted to divorce ISIS’s horrific pattern of sexual enslavement from the Islamic faith. Among other defenses, the author, Boston University assistant professor of religion Kecia Ali, pulls out a couple of old chestnuts: that the Qur’an “arose” in a world where slavery was a given, that ISIS’s fundamentalism is “superficial and selective” (unlike those who choose to ignore the pro-slavery, pro-rape passages in the Qur’an?), and that the west, not Islam, is to blame for all of this.
I’d like to dissect that a little bit, but first, let me tell you how the day closed: with the news that ISIS blew up a 2000-year-old religious temple in Palmyra. This news comes less than a week after the news that 81-year-old Syrian archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, who spent four decades in charge of the Palmyra excavation, was interrogated, tortured, and beheaded by ISIS. Afterward, they strung his body up from a lamppost and placed the head below.
Early reports stated that they were looking for gold, but over the past week, it has come to light that the true agenda of the militants is to “purge paganism” from the world. They believed al-Asaad had secretly buried antiquities. Since they overtook Palmyra in May, it has been reported that ISIS has destroyed several other religious artifacts, including the first-century Lion of al-Lat, believed to be the “consort” of the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess of Mecca. Now, they’ve destroyed a temple to Baalshamin, alternately a god and a title for other gods, including famed Yahweh competitor Ba’al.
These actions beg an obvious question: is this about religion, or isn’t it? Apologists like Kecia Ali would have us believe that the violence perpetuated by ISIS might use scripture as justification, but it is not really religion driving the behavior. If it was, then why don’t all Muslims behave this way? The simplest answer is that social attitudes progress in spite of religion. Ali criticizes the “superficial and selective” interpretation of the Qur’an, but as I love saying of any holy book: all that bad shit is still in there. If you “choose” to interpret the horrible passages as the inerrant word of God, how can anyone tell you that you’re religiously wrong? It’s right there.
At the same time, it can be challenging to argue with this idea that ISIS is not religiously motivated. Their conquest has been characterized by violence against non-Muslims, “recruiting” children (often by kidnapping) to brainwash as soldiers, rape, forced marriages, sexual enslavement, child brides, beheadings, and mass executions. Despite their own religious rhetoric, all of these can be justified as non-religious actions. Examples can be found of all of these atrocities in recent history in a non-religious context. Examples can also be found of all of these in recent history in a non-Islamic religious context. Ali, for instance, points out that the Thirteenth Amendment “continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime.” Going further, ISIS has a stated goal of restoring a global caliphate, which some characterize as a reaction to decades of western colonialism followed by decades of western warfare on “their” soil. So sure, it’s possible that all of this mayhem has nothing to do with religion, deep down, and that citing Islamic doctrine is just an easy excuse.
Okay, fine. Let’s say all that is true (it isn’t). Explain to me, then, the political, non-religious motives for blowing up the Baalshamin temple. Explain the destruction of the Lion of al-Lat. Explain the weeks of torture al-Asaad suffered because jihadists wanted more and more religious idols to destroy. If ISIS is political, not religious; if they are angry and misguided young men, not religious zealots; if they are struggling to gain new ground thanks to drone strikes and local soldiers; then tell me, why would they waste the time, manpower, and explosives?
I can understand why the initial reports stated ISIS was looking for “stores of gold”; looking for idols to gods who haven’t been worshipped for centuries sounds too stupid to be true. But it is true, and what reason could ISIS possibly have for focusing so much energy on what most would regard as a non-urgent mission?
The answer, quite simply, lies in mainstream Islamic tradition. Veneration of Muhammad is not some weird, fringe-loon notion; it’s sewn into the fabric of Islam. God Himself, via the Qur’an, declares that “You have indeed a noble paradigm in the Apostle of God for him who fears God and the Day of Resurrection, and remembers God frequently” (33:21). It’s no surprise, then, that the other major sources of Muslim theology are the hadith (sayings of Muhammad) and the sira (biographies of Muhammad). Muhammad’s life is important in Islam. The fact that he did many terrible, unconscionable things is easily ignored by those with a “superficial and selective” interpretation; what is not so easily ignored is God’s very specific exaltations of Muhammad’s “sublime nature” (68:4).
My theory about why idolatry is considered such an egregious crime is fairly simple (some might call it “facile,” because it’s rooted in human behavior rather than a dizzying circle-jerk of Qur’anic exegeses). It traces to the “Satanic Verses” incident, in which it was “revealed” to Muhammad that, although there is only one God, it’s cool with Him if the Meccans continue to worship al-Lat, al-Uzza, and Manat. With that in mind, consider that the two most successful “prophets” of the modern age (meaning we have actual, independent historical documentation of them and their lives), Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard, were self-serving pricks who built a religion around their personal wants and needs. Plenty of evidence points to Muhammad doing the same thing, with somewhat alarming frequency (and even more alarming veneration), and there’s no reason to suspect he didn’t. It takes a certain type of narcissistic megalomaniac to think God is talking to him; why wouldn’t the things “He” says be self-serving?
The “Satanic Verses” themselves were self-serving: Muhammad, exiled with his followers to Medina, wanted back into Mecca. He didn’t think he could take them by force (yet), so after years of preaching to his devotees that his is the only God, Muhammad hedged his bets. He thought he could get back into the good graces of the Meccans, without pissing off his people. He was wrong on both counts, so he retracted those revelations and followed them up with some new ones: one in which God explains that sometimes Satan gets the best of the Prophet, followed by a series of verses casually insulting the Meccan gods and those who worship them. In short, Muhammad was playing to the crowd.
When Muhammad eventually amassed enough followers to conquer Mecca, the followers’ disdain for polytheism (and, consequently, idolatry) were firmly entrenched in the burgeoning religion. Muhammad gave people what they wanted. Their hatred for idolators and “disbelievers,” and the Qur’anic permission to annihilate them no matter what, inspired the (possibly apocryphal, almost certainly exaggerated) famous cleansing of the Ka’aba. This cleansing, Muhammad’s first act in Mecca after the conquest, involved the single-handed destruction of 360 idols to other gods.
This is not Muhammad’s most violent or distasteful act by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an example of his “sublime nature.” A good Muslim strives to emulate Muhammad, who did some indisputably terrible things while God calls him a “noble paradigm… who fears… and remembers God frequently.” Is it any surprise that ISIS takes this to its logical extreme? Are child brides surprising when you know the story of Muhammad and Aisha (whom Muhammad married at age six and fucked at age nine)? Are forced marriages any surprise when you know the story of Safiyah bint Huyayy (who was taken as a sex slave after all the men in her Jewish tribe were slaughtered, including her entire family; the Muslims found her so beautiful that, when Muhammad caught wind, he took her as his “bride”)? Are sex slaves any surprise in light of the story of Mariyah the Copt, an Egyptian slave given to Muhammad and taken as a concubine?
Modern, progressive, enlightened Muslim women can choose to ignore these stories, choose to put them in their proper historical context, and go on calling themselves Muslims and following the aspects of Islam they consider appropriate in the modern world. What they can’t do is deny these stories exist in Islamic canon. They can’t make the honest claim that ISIS has misinterpreted commands and stories that are unusually clear (considering how incoherent the Qur’an is).
This bullshit with ISIS has pissed me off for a long time. I haven’t done much to address it specifically, but the destruction of the Baalshamin temple pushed me over the edge. It’s not that I’m angrier about the destruction of a 2000-year-old temple than I am about the vile human rights abuses; it’s that this incident was, to date, the clearest indication that ISIS is exactly what they say they are: a well-armed collection of fundamentalist retards.