ISTANBUL — 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.