The recent massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., demonstrated, once again, the so-called Islamic State’s ability to win over disaffected Muslims. Using a mixture of textual literalism and self-righteous certainty, the extremist group is able to persuade young men and women from Pakistan to Belgium to pledge allegiance to it and commit violence in its name.
This is why the Islamic State’s religious ideology needs to be taken seriously. While it’s wrong to claim that the group’s thinking represents mainstream Islam, as Islamophobes so often do, it’s also wrong to pretend that the Islamic State has “nothing to do with Islam,” as many Islamophobia-wary Muslims like to say. Indeed, jihadist leaders are steeped in Islamic thought and teachings, even if they use their knowledge to perverse and brutal ends.
A good place to start understanding the Islamic State’s doctrine is by reading Dabiq, the digital English-language magazine that the group puts out every month. One of the most striking pieces I have seen in it was an 18-page article in March titled “Irja’: The Most Dangerous Bid’ah,” or heresy.
Unless you have some knowledge of medieval Islamic theology you probably have no idea what irja means. The word translates literally as “postponing.” It was a theological principle put forward by some Muslim scholars during the very first century of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was going through a major civil war, as proto-Sunnis and proto-Shiites fought for power, and a third group called Khawarij (dissenters) were excommunicating and slaughtering both sides. In the face of this bloody chaos, the proponents of irja said that the burning question of who is a true Muslim should be “postponed” until the afterlife. Even a Muslim who abandoned all religious practice and committed many sins, they reasoned, could not be denounced as an “apostate.” Faith was a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate.
The scholars who put this forward became known as “murjia,” the upholders of irja, or, simply, “postponers.” The theology that they outlined could have been the basis for a tolerant, noncoercive, pluralistic Islam — an Islamic liberalism. Unfortunately, they did not have enough influence on the Muslim world. The school of thought disappeared quickly, only to go down in Sunni orthodoxy’s memory as one of the early “heretical sects.” The murjia left a mark on the more lenient side of Sunni Islam, represented by Hanafi-Maturidism, most popular in the Balkans, Turkey and Central Asia, but today there is virtually no Muslim group that identifies itself as murjia. The word irja is seldom heard in discussions of Islamic theology.
So why is the Islamic State so alarmed about this old “heresy”? The answer to this question can be found in the Dabiq article itself, where the authors accuse other Islamist rebel groups in Syria of irja. “These factions did not rule by the Shariah despite their control of ‘liberated’ territory,” the Islamic State writers note loathingly. In other words, they did not kill “apostates,” implement corporal punishment, or force women to cover themselves head to toe.
The groups that the Islamic State accuses of irja — many of them conservative Islamists — would probably not readily accept the label. In their religious texts, too, irja probably appears as heresy. But we should recognize that by “postponing” the imposition of religion and the punishment of sinners, they are engaged in de facto irja. Not out of principle perhaps, but out of pragmatism.
In fact, there are hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world who are also engaged in irja, even if they are unfamiliar with the term. Some of them are focused on the Quran, instead of the medieval Shariah, and hold on to the famous Quranic verse that says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Other Muslims are under the cultural influence of Western liberalism. Others are under the influence of Sufism, the mystical brand of Islam, which focuses on the individual’s willful godliness rather than strict adherence to rules and laws. In its condemnation of irja, the Islamic State also targets these lenient Muslims. They are the ones, Dabiq notes, who “made Islam into a mere claim having no reality.” They must be reminded that “Allah’s mercy and forgiveness is not an excuse to commit sins.”
As one such Muslim, I call on my like-minded coreligionists to join me in wearing the irja badge with pride — and revived knowledge. We lost this key theology more than a millennium ago, but we desperately need it today to both end our religious civil wars and to establish liberty for all.
Aware that irja is its theological antidote, the Islamic State presents it as a lack of religious piety. It is, however, true piety combined with humility — the humility that comes from honoring God as the only judge of men. On the other hand, the Islamic State’s zeal to dictate, which it presents as piety, seems to be driven by arrogance — the arrogance of judging all other men, and claiming power over them, in the name of God.
Mustafa Akyol is the author of Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, and a contributing opinion writer.