When discussing ISIS, President Obama refuses to label its members as “Islamic extremists” and has stressed that the United States is not at war with Islam. Not surprisingly, some of his critics and political opponents have taken issue with this and often insist on labeling the members of ISIS as Islamic extremists or Islamic terrorists. Graeme Wood has, rather famously, argued that ISIS is an Islamic group and is, in fact, adhering very closely to its interpretations of the sacred text.
Laying aside the political machinations, there is a rather interesting philosophical and theological question here: who decides who is a Muslim? Since I am not a Muslim or a scholar of Islam, I will not be examining this question from a theological or religious perspective. I will certainly not be making any assertions about which specific religious authorities have the right to say who is and who is not a true Muslim. Rather, I am looking at the philosophical matter of the foundation of legitimate group identity. This is, of course, a variation on one aspect of the classic problem of universals: in virtue of what (if anything) is a particular (such as a person) of a type (such as being a Muslim)?
Since I am a metaphysician, I will begin with the rather obvious metaphysical starting point. As Pascal noted in his famous wager, God exists or God does not.
If God does not exist, then Islam (like all religions that are based on a belief in God) would have an incorrect metaphysics. In this case, being or not being a Muslim would be a social matter. It would be comparable to being or not being a member of Rotary, being a Republican, a member of Gulf Winds Track Club or a citizen of Canada. That is, it would be a matter of the conventions, traditions, rules and such that are made up by people. People do, of course, often take this made up stuff very seriously and sometimes are quite willing to kill over these social fictions.
If God does exist, then there is yet another dilemma: God is either the God claimed (in general) in Islamic metaphysics or God is not. One interesting problem with sorting out this dilemma is that in order to know if God is as Islam claims, one would need to know the true definition of Islam—and thus what it would be to be a true Muslim. Fortunately, the challenge here is metaphysical rather than epistemic. If God does exist and is not the God of Islam (whatever it is), then there would be no “true” Muslims, since Islam would have things wrong. In this case, being a Muslim would be a matter of social convention—belonging to a religion that was right about God existing, but wrong about the rest. There is, obviously, the epistemic challenge of knowing this—and everyone thinks he is right about his religion (or lack of religion).
Now, if God exists and is the God of Islam (whatever it is), then being a “true” member of a faith that accepts God, but has God wrong (that is, all the non-Islam monotheistic faiths), would be a matter of social convention. For example, being a Christian would thus be a matter of the social traditions, rules and such. There would, of course, be the consolation prize of getting something right (that God exists).
In this scenario, Islam (whatever it is) would be the true religion (that is, the one that got it right). From this it would follow that the Muslim who has it right (believes in the true Islam) is a true Muslim. There is, however, the obvious epistemic challenge: which version and interpretation of Islam is the right one? After all, there are many versions and even more interpretations—and even assuming that Islam is the one true religion, only the one true version can be right. Unless, of course, God is very flexible about this sort of thing. In this case, there could be many varieties of true Muslims, much like there can be many versions of “true” runners.
If God is not flexible, then most Muslims would be wrong—they are not true Muslims. This then leads to the obvious epistemic problem: even if it is assumed that Islam is the true religion, then how does one know which version has it right? Naturally, each person thinks he (or she) has it right. Obviously enough, intensity of belief and sincerity will not do. After all, the ancients had intense belief and sincerity in regard to what are now believed to be made up gods (like Thor and Athena). Going through books and writings will also not help—after all, the ancient pagans had plenty of books and writings about what we regard as their make-believe deities.
What is needed, then, is some sort of sure sign—clear and indisputable proof of the one true view. Naturally, each person thinks he has that—and everyone cannot be right. God, sadly, has not provided any means of sorting this out—no glowing divine auras around those who have it right. Because of this, it seems best to leave this to God. Would it not be truly awful to go around murdering people for being “wrong” when it turns out that one is also wrong?