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Who Gets to Say What Is 'Islamic?'

02/25/2015 04:41 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

"It is Islamic. Very Islamic!" That was Graham Wood's description of ISIS in his recent cover story for The Atlantic Monthly "What Isis Really Wants and How to Stop it."

Wood -- who is not himself a Muslim -- provides important information about ISIS. (ISIS is not just like Al Quaeda and we ignore the distinctions at our peril.) But Wood gets into mischief in declaring what is "Islamic" and even what is "very Islamic." Serious Muslim scholars and intellectuals have pushed back hard. Their insight: Wood inadvertently strengthens ISIS's rhetoric by repeating its claims to be a "learned" reading of Islam.

In the meantime, other well meaning folks are saying "ISIS is not Islamic at all!"

As a rabbi who has spent decades in dialogue with Muslims, I know one thing for sure: I don't get to say what is "Islamic" and certainly not what is "very Islamic." But I can make some observations about this debate from my perspective.

When my husband was a college freshman, straight from his classical Reform Temple in Pittsburgh, he had his first close encounter with an Orthodox Jew. His classmate believed that since my husband did not observe (or even know about) much of traditional Jewish law, he was not really practicing Judaism. Surprised, my husband replied, "Isn't the essence of Judaism 'to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?'" Each young man thought the other was practicing a mutant form of the religion he loved.

Judaism is a multi-vocal, evolving civilization. So it has been for its entire, long history. We have had many battles for the soul of Judaism. Jews do, on occasion, declare other forms of Judaism heresy. Orthodox scholar David Berger recently suggested that we deem heretical those who believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah. But accusations of heresy are not common. Instead, we Jews argue passionately over whose reading of Judaism is correct.

Islamic civilization, too, has seen centuries of change and a great diversity of traditions. As with Judaism, there is no central body like the Vatican to declare orthodoxy for most Muslims. While ISIS claims to be reading the Qur'an literally, other Muslims -- diametrically opposed to ISIS -- can also cite the Quran chapter and verse. In addition, as Professor Jerusha Tanner Lamptey of Union Theological Seminary reminds us, in Islam, as in Judaism, "texts have never been only interpreted literally. They have always been interpreted in multiple ways... that's been the case from the get-go."

Wood believes it is important that we take the ideology of ISIS with utmost seriousness in order to develop appropriate policy. In making his point, however, he goes on to say that ISIS is a "coherent" reading of Islam. This, as Muslim scholars have argued, is more than he is entitled to judge. Claiming the mantle of Islam is the strategy on which ISIS relies. Why would an outside observer support that strategy by taking its claims at face value?

Wood acknowledges that ISIS is a splinter group. He compares it to the cults of David Koresh and Jim Jones. He notes that all but a tiny minority of Muslims oppose ISIS and that, indeed, ISIS considers the vast majority of the Muslim world heretics. But given the anti-Muslim bigotry in our country today, Wood fails when he doesn't state much more clearly -- early and often in his 10,000 word piece -- that Muslim Americans are as appalled by ISIS as the rest of us.

Muslim Americans feel vulnerable in our society; Wood's piece, selectively quoted by right wing pundits, makes the burden of these citizens even worse.

Muslim Americans will tell us how we can best be their allies. We don't need to enter into the debate on the true nature of their religion. Rather, we should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Muslim friends as they work out what they believe is "very Islamic" today.