Indeed, that “pristine” Islam they claim is the only proper Islam never existed. In his new book, Did Muhammad Exist?, Robert Spencer argued persuasively that this mythical “fundamentalist” Islam didn’t even exist in the era of its birth and expansion. What is indisputable is that within a few years of Muhammad’s death, both the caliphate and political rule over Muslims passed to the Umayyad dynasty which compiled much of what we know today as Islam and yet is considered to have been rather irreligious in practice by most Muslims. The Shia hate it. Then came the not wildly pious Abbasid dynasty eventually followed by the equally worldly Turkish dynasties. Over the course of 1200 years the “caliphate” was pretty much a matter of, to use Mao Zedong’s phrase, politics in command.
The period when Islam was supposedly conducted according to the ideal of the Islamists and the Islam-is-innately-radical crowd was for about a quarter-century after Muhammad’s death. And even during that brief era two of the three caliphs were assassinated and there was a bloody civil war that deposed the fourth one. Even according to Muslim calculation, then, the actual golden age of unity over what Islam meant and how it should be organized lasted two years after Muhammad’s death.
Consequently, the Islamists claim that for almost all of the 1200-plus years since Muhammad died virtually all Muslims—including the strict Saudi Wahhabis–misunderstood Islam! So how can it be claimed by Western non-Muslims that all of those qadis, scholars, preachers, and pious Muslims were doing it wrong and that the radical Islamists are the truly correct Muslims?
And that’s how most Muslims have thought until very recently. I call this actually-existing religion that the Islamists condemn “conservative-traditionalist Islam.” It was definitely not liberal or tolerant but it was and is quite different from the contemporary Islamist groups. Of course, there were many Sharia-mandated laws and practices in common with the Islamists, but many other points were not observed in practice, while other Islamist interpretation were not accepted at all. Certainly there was not a completely religious regime that matched the goals of an Usama bin Ladin, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, or Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
In both World War One and World War Two the German governments held a view similar to that of our contemporary Islam-is-inevitably-radical crowd and it failed miserably. When the Turkish caliph declared jihad, properly and officially under Sharia law, he was ignored by almost all of the world’s Muslims.
–The revolutionaries also pick and highlight the portions of the Koran and hadith they want while putting emphasis on those respected commentators of the past who support their basic interpretation and downplay those who held different views. To make Islam identical with revolutionary Islamist political ideology, which is in many ways is also a modern creation, is absurd. Just because the Islamists claim that they are the only “proper” Muslims doesn’t make that true.
–While the idea that Islam has been “hijacked” by Islamists ignores the fact that they have a strong claim to legitimacy, the claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam argues that the majority of the world’s Muslims are the hijackers? Neither side are heretics or hijackers but contenders for power. The Islamists seem to be succeeding—helped by the blindness and foolish policies of the apologists—in seizing control of Islam. That proves hey are dangerous but it doesn’t prove that they’re right.
–If the Islamists so obviously represent the proper fulfillment of Islam then why are the biggest opponents of Islamism pious Muslims willing to fight and die to defeat the revolutionaries? Why have the Islamists had such an uphill battle and so often been defeated by other Muslims? If the opponents view Islam as compatible with other interpretations—by no means necessarily liberal but anti-Islamist ones–isn’t that equally valid?
–Other religions have also evolved over time due to changing interpretations and adaptations to different times and conditions. If you were to argue in the Middle Ages—when the dominant interpretation of Christianity was often quite bloodthirsty—that the Spanish Inquisition or Crusaders were not inevitably the proper view of Christianity, do you think that would have been persuasive at the time? True, Christian texts are far more peace-loving than what is in the Koran, but so what? Try that one on Savonarola or those massacring Protestants in France or executing priests in England just four centuries ago. They would have explained to you that they obviously represented proper Christianity.
I am not arguing here that Islam will become moderate in accepted theological terms any time soon. These processes take centuries, as Christian history shows, and in the meantime there are wars, mass murders, and tremendous suffering. But, again, what is important is not some abstract interpretation of innate qualities, that the long-term proves are not so innate after all, but what actually exists at present in the real world.