Historically, whenever a criticism was leveled against Islam, what seems like a majority of Muslims were quick to point out that the criticism was unfounded or erroneous. Their tactic was, and remains, to claim that the criticism misunderstood or misrepresented one element or another of ‘true Islam’. What constitutes ‘true Islam’ has always been vague and sometimes even contradictory. However, this defensive tactic has been repeated so many times it has become a culture-specific cliché in Muslim-majority countries. At best, it has been helpful in combating Islamophobia and the readiness, common among orientalists and reactionaries, to conflate Islam with terrorist organizations or attacks. At worst, it has been used by various religious establishments in Muslim-majority countries to silence any form of criticism. But now, with the rise of both Islamic extremism and Islamophobia, two questions have gained immense importance: Why can’t we criticize Islam? And if we are to criticize Islam, how do we do it?
To answer the first question, we need to define Islam. This has been a less commonly used tactic in defending Islam, because defining a religion is an almost impossible task. But what is Islam, anyway? We can say that it is meaning-making system that consists of a central reference or key text, and a number of signature behaviors and practices. This general definition is of course limited and works best for Abrahamic religions.
However, a closer look at the aforementioned general definition reveals another important characteristic of religion: de-centrality.
To understand the de-centrality of religion, consider Islam. If we take Koran to be the central reference or key text of Islam, we must ask two questions. The first is: Which interpretation or understanding of the Koran do we mean? One of the main contention points between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of Islam involves different understandings or interpretations of the Koranic text, although, needless to say, both branches read and study the same text materially. These different understandings or interpretations are immanent in any text, let alone a religious one. The second question is: Should we consider Koran the central text in Islam at all? Choosing to do so can’t be separated from the hegemony of the Sunni branch of Islam, since Koran is not the central text in many minority sects of Islam; dismissing these sects when discussing Islam is simply unacceptable.
Once we disregard the Koran as a central reference or key text, we are left with a multitude of sources for Islamic theology, practice, and law, which vary according to branch and sect. Once we understand that the same could be said about any other religion, the de-centrality of structure reveals itself. Islam is the reference point for all the unique and different branches and sects that relate themselves to it.
To fully understand this, we must remember that religion has a fundamentally individualistic core to it. Historically, religion emerged as a set of beliefs that explore and explain the world and wrestle meaning out of it. The move towards the development of communal behaviors and practices was a later one. This individualistic core is what bestows religion its de-centrality, and what gives individuals, no matter the difference in their beliefs, the right to claim to believe in one religion or another, in their own personal ways.
However, the emergence of class societies in early civilizations hastened what can be called the hierarchization and bureaucratization of religion, in the sense that each religion – and each branch, and each sect, etc. – developed a representative body or institution or establishment, with a clear hierarchy and a complex bureaucracy. Once these bodies were developed, the communal aspect of religion was utilized for governance, and a politics of the divine was established. Religion as a personal set of beliefs became distinct from religion as a communal ideology. This has, more or less, not changed ever since.
The form and degree of hierarchization and bureaucratization of religions differed greatly due to numerous socio-economic and historical factors. In Catholic Christianity, for example, the hierarchization and bureaucratization resulted in the papacy and the greater hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In Sunni Islam, this resulted in the Caliphate project and the greater Sunni religious hierarchy.
Except the Caliphate project was never a strictly religious one, and the Sunni religious hierarchy was never centralized and never had the equivalent of a trans-national papacy. Sunni religious authority, in fact, seemed to constitute the sum of de-centralized nodes of local religious authority (such as the local madares or masajed, for example). Al-Azhar, Al-Madinah, and Al-Mustafa were the closest Sunni Islam has ever come to establishing a trans-national central religious authority, but they remain limited in influence and confined to their geographic locations.
The de-centralization of Sunni Islam is just an illustrative example. It serves to explain why Islam as a whole has remained beyond criticism throughout history. In the Age of Enlightenment in the West, voices critical of Christianity’s influence on the state, as well as its values, practices, and beliefs, had a clear target: the trans-national central religious establishment that is the Church. Even the Bible these voices criticized was the Bible as understood by this Church. These critical voices established a tradition whose equivalent never existed in Muslim-majority countries. And that is largely due to the absence of a trans-national central religious establishment to aim at.
Since the inception of the Caliphate project in Muslim-majority countries, the local nodes of religious authority have benefited from conflating religion as a personal set of beliefs with religion as a communal ideology. This conflation allowed them to claim representation of Islam and portray any criticism leveled at them as a criticism leveled at Islam itself. It moreover created the illusion that Islam is a homogenous entity. This conflation didn’t only exist in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, historical example informs us that any religious establishment with ties to the state will use it to deflect criticism.
In the case of Islam, this conflation was exploited by orientalists and Islamophobes in the West since the religion’s emergence. When Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban stated in 2015 that Islam was “the rulebook of another world”, he was invoking that exact illusory homogeneity that conflation is responsible for.
All of which makes criticizing religion a task of immense difficulty. But we shouldn’t abstain from it simply because religion is de-centralized and heterogeneous. We should instead think rigorously and be more strict and specific in our criticism to make it more responsible. We should also be more sensitive and empathetic in our inquiries. We should ask ourselves, for example: Which element of which branch or cult of this religion are we criticizing? And are we conflating an element with the node of religious authority that claims to represent it? And if our criticism was aimed at a religious authority or establishment, we should ask, for example: What behavior or set of behaviors are we criticizing exactly? And how does this behavior or set of behaviors relate to the branch or cult of the religion in question?
Untangling the conflation between religion and religious authority might make speaking of religion a slightly more difficult task, but it is essential to producing sound and fair criticism. Without it, religious establishments will continue to represent and homogenize religions, Islamophobes and xenophobes will continue to oppress and antagonize members of different faiths, and the world will become a much darker and less tolerant place for all of us.