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Community highlights

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought interesting. Read on for seven comments or discussions I thought worth highlighting, including a few from our on-going series Understanding Islamic State.


Islamic State lays claim to Muslim theological tradition and turns it on its head

Harith Bin Ramli took part in an Author Q&A to go along with his story. Here are a few highlights from the discussion.

Mike Stevens asked if there was a historical precedent for Islamic State.

Mike Stevens:

Very interesting analysis, and correct to see ISIS as within the Islamic tradition (albeit an extreme and minority tendency within that tradition).

My question is about the voluntarist nature of the belief that ISIS can hasten the will of God (as you nicely put it). Is this typical of millenarians in Islam? I would have thought there would be a certain fatalism about when the last days will arrive (i.e. it is part of God’s inscrutability, and that bringing them on is not within human powers as such. So are there any historical precedents within the Islamic tradition for apocalyptic sects believing they can bring on the last days in the way that ISIS apparently believes?

Harith Bin Ramli:

Thank you, Mike. That is a very good question. I don’t think ISIS have abandoned mainstream Sunni predestinarian theology, but (if we can take their proclamations at face value) instead see themselves as the agents of prophecised events that will take place at the End of Days. In other words, they are carrying out the will of God.As I pointed in the article, where they depart from most examples of Islamic millenarianism in the past is the fact that they do not seem to refer to any form of divinely-guided figure such as a Mahdi or Messiah to confirm their role in these prophecised events.

Our Series Editor Reema Rattan asked how well known radical thinkers are among Muslims.

Reema Rattan:

Reading this article made me wonder how well educated Muslims are about radical thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb. I don’t think that kind of knowledge is very common in the West. For instance, I don’t know if Gramsci is broadly read by the Italian population - or in other European countries. Perhaps this is even rarer for prominent thinkers in the Christian tradition, such as Augustine.

Is it just my impression or do Muslims have a broad knowledge of the history of thought in Islam?

Harith Bin Ramli:

Good question. Sayyid Qutb is widely read and known in many religious circles, and not always in extremist ones. Bear in mind that many people appreciate him for his very approachable Qur'an commentary “Fi zilal al-Qur'an” (Under the Shadow of the Qur'an), even though they might not agree with some of his political views. Some Muslims might read this work and not even be aware of these political views.It is very hard to make any generalisations about the level of education of Muslims around the world. I think it depends on what sort of population, theological tradition, the geographical location, cultural zone etc. My general (personal) impression is that the average Muslim does not have a very good knowledge of the history of Islamic thought, or at least not a very comprehensive view of this history. Many people will know more about some phases of Muslim history, but be quite ignorant about others.However, I am not sure if this is vastly different than the knowledge of the average European about the history of Christian or Western thought.

Michael Mihajlovic shared his views on why religions splinter apart.

Michael Mihajlovic:

Very interesting and informative article.

It seems these religions are merely groups of bigots who rather than seeking the truth are seeking to differentiate themselves from each other as the one with the superior dogma.

Christians, although not as violent, are no different. Protestants, for example, originally separated from the Catholics because of the injustice of having to pay for absolution of sins. Since then, the Catholic Church has long dropped the requirement to pay for absolution so there is no reason not to return to the fold but there is no sign of it. Indeed there is a second Christian denomination calling themselves Lutherans after Martin Luther who founded the Protestants.

Another example is the requirement by Jehovah’s Witnesses to deny themselves blood transfusion to save their lives. How one can expect such a demand from a just and merciful God is beyond reason.

My point is, if all denominations of all religions came together and used their best brains to determine the most logical interpretation, there would be only one denomination in each religion and no competition and in fighting amongst the denominations.

Harith Bin Ramli:

“My point is, if all denominations of all religions came together and used their best brains to determine the most logical interpretation, there would be only one denomination in each religion and no competition and in fighting amongst the denominations.”

I would agree with you that this would be a wonderful scenario, but am sceptical that this would be achieved, since

a. people like to disagree b. logic is not a straightforward tool, as the recent history of Western philosophy has shown us

However, I would add that this failure to achieve unity is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads to pluralism and tolerance. As Quran 49:13 tells us, God created humanity diverse for a good reason. It is only virtue that makes some people better than others, and as any deep study of religion or philosophy will show, virtue is not something that can simply be attained or defined.In some ways, as I argue in the article, IS is trying to achieve this unity by simply denying the culture of pluralism that developed within Islam. Perhaps the lesson is that we should strive for unity, but only through peaceful means that respects the right to differences of opinion.

Michael Mihajlovic

Thank you for the wise words, but, it seems, in my example there is very little wisdom in the different opinions of some religious denominations and that needs to be addressed because the masses of followers are misled to their own and others'detriment.


If Islamic State is based on religion, why is it so violent?

Author Aaron W. Hughes discussed the goals of Islamic State and how people can decide if something is an “erroneous interpretation” of religion – or if anyone can at all – with Ken Alderton.

Ken Alderton:

“In this, it’s like other reformist movements in Islam that seek to recreate in the modern period what they imagine to have been the political framework and society that Muhammad (570-632 CE) and his immediate followers lived in and created in seventh-century Arabia”

To my knowledge IS has never claimed that it wants to return to the time of Muhammad and the salaf.

I believe this is based on the erroneous opinion expressed in some places that IS “religous” philosophy is founded in the Wahhabi or salafi tradition. Both the Wahhabit and salafi vehemently disagree. They contend that if IS has any connection with Isalm it is with the Kharijite who rebelled against the Islamic understanding of the salaf.

Aaron W. Hughes:

Hi Ken,

All of the groups want to retune to this period. The call themselves the “Caliphate” Baghdadi is the Caliph, their glad is black. All of these resonate with a certain apocalypticism in Islam.

It is the goal of theology to adjudicate what is an erroneous interpretation and what is not. I unfortunately do not have the luxury. If someone says they do something in the name of a religion, I take it seriously and do not say, “well, no sir, you are wrong.”

Ken Alderton:

I disagree.

Very few groups in Islam want to return, theologically, to the time of the salaf. The vast bulk of the Islamic world are quite content to observe the scholarly interpretations made of Islam in the 1300 years from the time of the salaf until yesterday.

The fact that IS call themselves a “caliphate” is not significant. The last caliphate movement was in the early part of the 20th century and they certainly were not salafist.

I studiously avoid making judgements about “what is an erroneous interpretation and what is not” I rely entirely on the opinion of specialist scholars. In the case of IS, the bulk of the world’s specialist scholars have clearly said that the intepretations of the texts by IS are not only erroneous but contrary to the teachings of Islam. Furthermore, these scholars cover the full range of understandings of Islam. This is almost unique.

Aaron W. Hughes:

Hi, Ken,

“In the case of IS, the bulk of the world’s specialist scholars have clearly said that the intepretations of the texts by IS are not only erroneous but contrary to the teachings of Islam.”

My point is that it does not matter what these “specialist scholars” say. The people that commit these actions claim to be “real” Muslims. We can call them inauthentic, but then what? We have to understand what motivates them.

Ken Alderton:

In practical terms it makes a great deal of difference what the world’s specialist scholars say.

For example if the Islamic credentials of IS are left unchallenged then their recruitment of Muslim youth, one of the keys to their survival, becomes infinitely easier

In the UK 100 imams, specialist scholars in Quranic exegesis representing the full range of Islamic understandings, publically denounced IS as unIslamic specifically to counter the increasing flow of Muslim young men leaving to join IS.

These denunciations also counter the potential flow of funds from Muslim charities, NGOs and individuals to IS. There is solid evidence that the flow of funds has dried up to trickle since the declarations of the scholars.

The declaration of IS as “inauthentic” produces a better understanding of what motivates them - politcal power. Their opponents and the Muslim majority states around them understand this perfectly. It is only some Western states and commentators that have a problem.


Friday essay: on the Sydney Mardi Gras march of 1978

Coco Lossil share their experience of the first Sydney Mardi Gras and the violence that followed.

Coco Lossil:

I am a 78er. I was a student at Macquarie University [law, politics and behavioural sciences] when a group of us decided to attend. I still carry the police baton injury sustained to my knees. When younger it was a mild limp and inconvenience, but each year as I age is becomes more painful and a greater source of pain and mobility problems. I do wonder whether something like an online veteran’s service where any of us who would like help from the community could post our request and someone interested in helping could respond would be a useful gesture. So much is done for veterans in other conflict contexts and many would no longer know the huge financial, career, educational and family connections that were put on the line when participating in public protests like this. A student at MU had in fact lost her Commonwealth teaching scholarship, and threats to her liberty via psychiatric threats simply for publishing a poem celebrating her love for her girlfriend. Her teaching career ended as a result but pleased to report she managed to survive the trauma to make a life doing something else. Another boy at MU was kicked out of student college. The Sydney Morning Herald photos and use of names resulted in another female teacher at a private girl’s school being given her marching orders. The repercussions were savage for many of us. The financial and other penalties imposed on us simply for being gay are still subject to ignorance. Straight people in a de facto relationship who owned property could split up and enjoy waiver of Stamp Duty and other statutory costs but not if you were gay. Life long gay partners were not entitled to their partner’s superannuation as a partner till relatively recently. I call it the Prejudice Tax and in many cases it literally was - I and my partner paid higher single rate taxation for almost all our working lives. Millions and millions over decades paid out in Prejudice Tax. The apology is a lovely gesture and especially appreciated by those of us subject to homophobic abuse as students by Christine Forster’s brother and his sniggering conservative mates but consideration of other, more tangible reparations should be the next step.


The marriage plebiscite: No ‘time out’ on anti-discrimination laws

Jena Zelezny and author Patrick Stokes the role in philosophy (moral and otherwise) in understanding debates around same-sex marriage.

Jena Zelezny:

It should be understood that in contemporary philosophical enquiry and discourse there is a distinction made that sidelines morality as the only form through which these debates can be read and understood.

It should be made clear that neither the law, nor the church has any place in deciding who can or ought to choose dyadic marriage as a preferred living arrangement. Given this basic premise, it is imperative that any law or moral code that interferes with such a choice be dissolved and or repealed. The understanding of what constitutes heteronormative hegemony can take place concurrently.

Patrick Stokes:

Hi Jena,

It should be understood that in contemporary philosophical enquiry and discourse there is a distinction made that sidelines morality as the only form through which these debates can be read and understood.

Not wanting to get into this argument again, but I will just note for the record that this is true only if we define “contemporary philosophical enquiry and discourse” in a fairly restrictive way i.e. it’s not true of most analytic work on ethics.

It should be made clear that neither the law, nor the church has any place in deciding who can or ought to choose dyadic marriage as a preferred living arrangement.

I absolutely agree if we’re talking about marriage as a substantive living arrangement. I’m a bit warier if we’re talking about marriage as a legal status. For one thing, you used the word ‘dyadic’ - but if we’re simply going to say ‘nobody has the right to restrict choice’ argument then ‘dyadic’ might also go out the window (possibly rightly). I do think we need some articulation, even a fairly minimal one, of the sort of thing we’re recognising when we recognise it as a marriage.

Given this basic premise, it is imperative that any law or moral code that interferes with such a choice be dissolved and or repealed.

I’m not sure how one dissolves a moral code, but as noted I do think this libertarian argument has merit; I’m just not sure it tells the whole story.

The understanding of what constitutes heteronormative hegemony can take place concurrently.

Absolutely. Card, incidentally, disagreed on that: in arguing against extending marriage to LGBTQI couples she gave the rather memorable analogy of a society in which only men, but not women, are allowed to own slaves. Yes, she said, that’s unjust discrimination against women, but giving women the right to own slaves wouldn’t be the right solution.

Their discussion continues on for a few more comments if you’d like to read more.


Dja Dja Wurrung barks are Australian art – the British Museum should return them

Finally, Christine James argued that it’s important Australia tells its own stories (and the role in museums in doing so).

Christine James:

Thank you Robyn for this excellent article. I have a friend who used to work at the British Museum when she was young. She was recently able to visit the Encounters exhibition at the NMA. She found her experience of it so moving and interesting that she returned to see it a second time. The comments below do not address the issues of ownership and provenance of the Dja Dja Burruk bark engravings. These objects are indeed as you described of the greatest significance as Australian works of art. That they were transported to reside in the British Museum on the other side of the world is a tragedy for the recorded history of the first encounters between Aboriginal communities and the Europeans who colonised their country. By this I mean Australia’s own museums are the appropriate institutions to tell these stories about the beginnings of this nation we call Australia. The British Museum is an insititution which collected from the countries that were plundered by the British Empire. Australia should be able to tell its own stories, which are still unravelling.


Read a comment you thought interesting? Let me know during the week. You can leave a comment below or send me an email.