Last Friday saw the first Senate hearing on radical Islam. There are any number of things that could be said about this, much of which has already been said. While I can appreciate why Senator King and the Department of Homeland Security feel it is important to face the issue of homegrown and domestic terrorist threats in as comprehensive a manner as possible (Homeland Security’s ongoing need to justify its own existence aside), singling out Islamic extremism, as versus white supremacy organizations, for example, seems problematic.
But I think that underpinning these hearings is a very real concern that many people feel, that mainstream Islam doesn’t work hard enough to distance itself from Islamism. (I’d like to take this opportunity to emphasize to Congress, however, that what they’re concerned with is reactionary Islam, not radical Islam. Radical Islam would be Islam that’s sliding far-left. Reactionary Islam would be sliding far-right. Didn’t anyone pay attention in AP Gov?)
So this seems like a good time to discuss the concept of the umma. The umma is the universal community of Islam. It’s been a defining feature of Islamic thought since the first revelation in 610, and it makes a central tenant of Islamic theology. Although there are required ritual practices in Islam, and a long legal tradition that defines how these rituals should be performed, in a very real sense, a Muslim is anyone who swears “there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Prophet”, and anyone who does so is part of the umma.
Thus it has always been incredibly difficult in Islamic thought to say resolutely that someone is not a Muslim. It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize their actions, but traditionally, in order for someone not to be a Muslim, they had to either deny the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him) or attach divinity to a human being. Otherwise, a person can be a bad Muslim, but they’re still a Muslim.
By comparison, the history of the concept of heresy in Christianity means just the opposite. Christians have a long history of declaring who is, and is not, a Christian. But in Islam it’s far more difficult.